Canada’s unquestioning support isn’t helping Israel
December 10, 2012
Since Israel’s creation, successive Canadian governments have been strong supporters of Israel’s right to exist. Canada has never sought to be a major player in the seemingly endless search for peace between Israel and its neighbours. But it has had a role to play and it is useful to recall some of the key elements of that role.
From 1948 to the present, Canada has participated in the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Palestine. From 1956-67 Canada participated in UNEF 1 (United Nations Emergency Force I) with a contingent in the UN mission to supervise the withdrawal of French, Israeli and British troops from Egypt.
Canadian troops were back in UNEF II from 1973 to 1979 with a contingent in Egypt to supervise the ceasefire between Egyptian and Israeli forces. From 1974 to the present, Canada has maintained a contingent in the buffer zone between Israel and Syria as part of UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force), and from 1978 Canada has had a contingent in Lebanon to support security through UNIFIL (United Nations Force in Lebanon).
In 1985 Prime Minister Mulroney committed Canada to participate in the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai to supervise the implementation of the Camp David Accord, which brought a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Canada still has a contingent of 28 in the MFO, which replaced UNEF II in 1982.
A key element in all these operations has been the acceptability of Canada to the various parties. Canada has never participated in a peacekeeping operation without the prior consent of the parties to the dispute (peacemaking operations in Korea, Kosovo and Afghanistan are another matter).
On the diplomatic front, Lester Pearson won his Nobel Prize in 1957 for his efforts to create UNEF 1 to disengage British, French and Israeli forces from Egypt. That effort was focused more on trying to restore NATO solidarity than seeking a role for Canada in the Middle East.
A decade later, after the Six Days War, Canada was on the Security Council and helped to draft UNSC Resolution 242 — which has been the cornerstone of the basic approach taken by Canada, and most western countries, to the Israel/Palestine issue. Pierre Trudeau cancelled a UN Crime Conference in Toronto because he would have had to accept observers from the PLO.
Brian Mulroney was a strong friend of Israel and any UN resolution on Israel always went to PMO for instructions. The 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference (co-chaired by the USSR and the U.S.) resulted in parallel negotiating tracks for bilateral and multilateral issues. Canada was given the role of holding the gavel for the refugee working group and continued to maintain its activities long after the Madrid Process had been overtaken by Oslo. During the Martin government there was speculation that, in the event of a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians, Canada would provide a large contingent of soldiers to help supervise the implementation of any such accord.
There was a period of tension in Canada’s relations with Israel after Joe Clark promised to move the Canadian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during the 1979 election. In response, Pierre Trudeau claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was interfering in Canadian politics. The threat of an Arab boycott of Canadian goods and services forced the Clark government to re-evaluate its policy. Clark appointed a special envoy, Robert Stanfield, to provide a way out. Stanfield’s report recommended that the embassy stay put and it has to this day.
While the high hopes of Oslo have melted like the winter snows, the fact remains that Israel needs a peace agreement with the Palestinians just as much as the Palestinians need one with Israel.
The Harper government has taken the part of UNSC Resolution 242 that proclaims Israel’s right to exist in peace — and has conveniently forgotten the other side of the coin. The prime minister even went so far as to tell President Barack Obama that his language for a G-8 communique was unbalanced after Obama tried his hand at a new Middle East peace initiative. The U.S. is the only power that can mediate a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Taking sides with Israel against Obama was highly questionable two years ago — and is even more so now, after Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu openly campaigned for Mitt Romney.
Polls suggest that the Harper government’s policy on Israel finds favour with a large majority of Canadians. So why should he be concerned? If support for Israel is the driving factor in the Harper government’s current policy, the basic question is whether the manner in which it is expressed is helping Israel, or Canada.
Israel needs to have friends who have some standing with the Palestinians and the Arab world at large. Israel also needs friends to be able to tell it some home truths. Does the current policy achieve those objectives? The Palestinian Authority’s reaction to Canada’s explanation for our recent vote against Palestinian statehood in the UN suggests that Canada is no longer perceived as credible. What the policy does is please the Canadian Jewish community and the Netanyahu government.
Some well-connected people have suggested that one of the reasons for the Harper government’s U-turn on its China policy was that the Chinese-Canadian community did not support Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s original approach — and it was that factor, not the obvious economic benefits — that was key to the policy change.
China and Israel have little in common, but both have strong diaspora communities in Canada. It is time for the Canadian Jewish community and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to take a hard look at what exactly they are gaining in Canada’s current policy. Inside Canada the impetus for change has to come from inside that community. It wouldn’t mean that Canada would be any less a supporter of Israel, but we can favour a two-state solution that is satisfactory to both parties.
It might also mean that the support for Israel can be transformed into something useful to Israel and its neighbours. Many don’t believe the Canadian Jewish community is open to such a prospect and I expect to be excoriated for making such a suggestion. On the other hand I suspect some in the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs would take a somewhat different tact (at least in private).
If and when there is a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, there will be a need for well-trained soldiers to supervise it. Canada has the right stuff to help in that regard, but the current policy will leave us on the sidelines without any role to play. That would be a crushing diplomatic defeat — not just for Canada but for Israel, too.
Media reports on Foreign Minister John Baird’s recent meeting with Canadian diplomats stationed in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, New York and Geneva suggest they convinced him to moderate his threat of retaliation against the PA. Simon Foghel of the Centre for Jewish and Israeli Affairs is quoted as saying they were not seeking punishment against the Palestinian Authority. Those are positive steps on which to build.
Baird also deserves congratulations for having gone to the UN to present Canada’s position, whether or not one agrees with the position he expounded. Being there represents a shift from the position that Canada took on two UN conferences on racism, where we claimed Israel was going to be wrongly singled out. The French have a saying — “les absents ont toujours tort” (those absent are always wrong) — and boycotting UN meetings is not the Canadian way. It is far better to stand up and explain your position than resort to sandbox diplomacy if you don’t like the game. It provides a very bad example to a lot of countries and demeans Canada’s image in the world.
So what should Canada be doing? Why not try to start a real dialogue with the Palestinians and leaders of key Arab countries and their ambassadors here in Ottawa? Perhaps we could ask the Palestinian ambassador how Canada could help. It would’t mean wavering in our support for Israel. The Palestinians and neighbouring Arab nations are key to any long-term stability for Israel.
Harper used a non-partisan Blue Ribbon committee to provide him advice on Afghanistan. Clark’s use of Stanfield is another approach. Would such an approach be helpful in identifying ways of helping Canada regain some credibility with the Palestinians and Arab leaders while still maintaining strong support for Israel?
The goal here must be a Canadian policy that truly supports Israel’s long-term interests while recognizing those of the Palestinians.