This weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make his first ever trip to the state of Israel.
Given Canada’s unwavering and unequivocal support of the Jewish state, it is perhaps odd that the Prime Minister has waited eight years to visit the Holy land. Certainly, Canada has displaced the United States as Israel’s best friend, especially this week, as Israel was forced to engage in diplomatic damage control after its Defence Minister criticized US Secretary of State, John Kerry for his unrealistic expectations of Israel in the elusive Middle East peace process.
Israel has been in the Canadian news a lot this week. Lisa LaFlamme and the CTV National News were broadcasting live from Old Jerusalem. Monday was the funeral for former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, a polarizing soldier and politician if there ever was one. And last week, Canada appointed a non-diplomat to the posting of its Ambassador to Israel, Toronto lawyer, Vivian Bercovici.
Bercovici’s appointment was criticised in some circles because she is a non-diplomat and because she is an unabashed supporter and defender of Israel. I believe these criticisms are entirely without merit. Ms. Bercovici is an author, lawyer and professor at the University of Toronto with a post graduate degree in Middle East Studies. To the extent that her views align with the position of the Canadian Government on Israel, she is eminently qualified to represent Canada in Tel Aviv.
But it is Canada’s unequivocal support of Israel that is, to some extent, isolating us internationally.
I had the pleasure of visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in 2010. I certainly appreciate Israel’s unique security dilemma, being a small country surrounded almost exclusively by unsympathetic neighbors. I also respect Israel for being a functional democracy in an extremely unstable Middle East.
However, to hold it entirely blameless in the perpetually elusive peace process is neither supported by history nor does it promote conciliation. Increasingly, Canada’s position on Israel is becoming almost partisan, essentially mirroring the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
Given the instability of Israeli domestic politics, what happens if the Likud Yisrael Beiteinu Coalition loses control of the Knesset (Parliament)? Would Canada’s foreign policy change if Israelis elected a coalition less focused on its own security and more focused on peace in the Middle East?
In June of 2009, President Barack Obama announced that the United States did not accept the “legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements in disputed territories in the West Bank” (of the Jordan River). In November 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a partial ten month freeze plan on settlement construction. Objective analysis would reveal that this gesture had no significant effect on actual settlement construction, which continues to this day.
The Israeli government believes that settlement construction is not the impediment to peace. Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state or the “right to exist” within secure borders is the real issue according to Israel. Fair enough and this piece will not even attempt to address Palestinian Authority President’s Mahmoud Abbas’s various statements and actions that are an impediment to Middle East harmony, because, this piece is about Israel and Canadian foreign policy.
For a two state solution to work, each side must compromise and bargain in good faith. Israel might be correct that settlement construction is a distraction compared to the more longstanding issues of displaced Palestinians’ right of return to their pre-1948 homes and what to do with Jerusalem. But Israel cannot unilaterally define the terms in dispute and the reality is that construction of settlements is seen as a land grab by the Palestinian Authority.
Even the polarizing Ariel Sharon understood the irritant that settlement construction posed when, as Prime Minister in 2005, he instructed unilateral Israeli disengagement in the Gaza Strip.
This is complicated and neither side is blameless. However, mediation and conciliation requires some degree of neutrality and recognition of both parties’ positions, needs, interests and demands.
If the international community is to help broker an elusive Middle East Peace Accord, it must do so from an objective position of neutrality. Canada’s overt support and cheerleading for one side compromises its ability to contribute meaningfully to that process.