In early April it appeared the Canadian government might be able to pull off a dual Middle East strategy, combining co-operation with the conservative Gulf Arab states on security matters and sweeping support for current Israeli policies. John Baird, the foreign minister, had reason to be confident during the initial segments of his Middle East trek that month. There is no reason to doubt his assertion that Israeli policy was never raised with him in the Arab countries he visited, such is the Gulf leaders’ overwhelming preoccupation with their own security. Nor would it have had a major role in discussions in Jordan, given King Abdullah’s preoccupation with the challenge posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the burden of Syrian refugees and the Kingdom’s economic situation.
As Mr. Baird entered Israel, the score seemed 10 for the government, nil for the skeptics. To maintain that score, the minister would have been best to limit himself to established rhetoric and practice. The Arabs might have swallowed hard but they had seemingly learned to live with such policies. Had Mr. Baird chosen to go even further with a phrase or two cautioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with respect to settlements in the West Bank, as did President Barack Obama during his May visit to Israel, he could have emerged from the region well satisfied.
At some point, however, the minister decided to strike out beyond the anticipated. He met the Israeli cabinet minister Tzipi Livni in Arab East Jerusalem, which is in Palestinian eyes the capital of their future state. Such a simple meeting may on the surface have appeared innocent, although there seem to have been outside players who tried to warn the minister off. But such an encounter crossed a critical red line in the competing narratives of Arabs and Israelis.
While Qatar and others were prepared to overlook their concerns about Canada more generally, Mr. Baird’s Jerusalem gesture went too far. It challenged a well-established status quo, whereby foreign dignitaries do not visit the Arab part of the city to conduct business with Israelis.
As the location of the third holiest site in Islam, under Muslim rule for longer than Anglo-Saxons have been in Britain and the place from which Mohammed by tradition ascended into heaven, East Jerusalem goes to the core of the Arab cultural and religious narrative regardless of sect. There is a widespread fear that symbolic moves, seemingly innocent in themselves, will gradually facilitate Israel’s absorption of this sacred space, divesting Arab Muslims of respect and dignity. They see such seemingly innocuous steps as part and parcel of a broader policy involving discriminatory zoning and planning, demolitions, evictions and archeological excavations.
Such accusations may or may not unfairly pillory Israelis, but what matters here is that they reflect deeply held beliefs. That is why Canadian governments have traditionally taken what has been called a “fair-minded” approach to such matters: concern, a willingness to use our good offices and sensitivity to the claims and needs of both sides. Historically when we have departed from such a path, there have been repercussions: in 1979 when Joe Clark, as leader of the opposition and then as Prime Minister, promised to move the Canadian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to (albeit Jewish West) Jerusalem, Arab reaction was swift and negative. In their minds the move was aimed at legitimizing Israel’s claim to the city in its entirety. Mr. Clark appointed his much-respected predecessor as leader of the Conservative party, Robert Stanfield, to rethink the matter. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, an admiring friend of Israel, watched language and gestures carefully, with Mr. Clark’s miscalculation much in mind.
The current government has proven itself to be a much more assertive advocate of Israeli policies and practices. The Arabs have disliked Canada for it. They had generally held their fire, the not unimportant exception being their part in derailing our bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. That done, and in the process of establishing new Arab relationships, Canada, intentionally or not, has set off the tripwire once again, undervaluing narrative and emotion and the inferred insult such a step suggests when Arab honour is at stake.
The Qataris, after consultations with and the concurrence of other Arab governments, decided to undercut us again through their bid to see the International Civil Aviation Organization moved from Montreal to Doha. That the Qatari decision seemed sudden should not delude us that it is not serious. There will now be a struggle for votes with money on their side and organizational and operational logic on ours.
Reasoned judgment respecting the operation and integrity of UN-based institutions will probably prevail, but in this world of power and politics nothing is certain.
Michael Bell is a former Ambassador of Canada to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. He was executive assistant to Robert Stanfield during the Jerusalem Embassy affair of 1979-80.