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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, 1 February, 2012. (Mati Milstein)
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, 1 February, 2012. (Mati Milstein)

Baird lobbied hard against Palestinian bid for statehood Add to ...

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird personally took to the phones last year to try to swing countries to oppose Palestinian efforts to be recognized as a state by the United Nations, according to newly released documents that for the first time reveal in detail how intensely Canada worked behind the scenes to block the statehood resolution.

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Though it was clear that Canada opposed the resolution – and Mr. Baird met with foreign counterparts when the issue came to a head at UN headquarters in New York last September – the documents contain details of a high-level lobbying campaign in the preceding months.

It was a controversial issue that his counterparts in some other countries worked to dodge. But with Israel and the United States working feverishly to prevent recognition of a Palestinian state, Canada’s Foreign Minister personally intervened to support that effort.

Mr. Baird called at least eight fellow foreign ministers from countries including Chile, South Korea and Australia, taking on an issue that threatened to spark a confrontation at the UN.

And although the Palestinian resolution was eventually put on hold last year – it’s still on the backburner at the UN Security Council – it could be revived within months. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told an Israeli delegation this past weekend that he will renew the bid within months if Israel does not embrace new peace talks, according to reports.

Canadian diplomats have lobbied other countries on other UN votes, but when the Foreign Minister personally does the calling, it’s a signal that Ottawa considers the issue a priority.

Briefing notes obtained under the Access to Information law – partially blacked out – show Mr. Baird was briefed for calls last August to the foreign ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Chile, Panama and El Salvador.

According to a government source, that list of target nations was the result of consultation with “like-minded” countries on the same side of the issue – which in this case most notably included the United States and Israel. The countries Mr. Baird was to call were considered to have some connection to Canada that might make them listen.

It is the first time details have emerged about the countries Canada targeted in the run-up to the opening of last fall’s UN session.

Australia and New Zealand, both part of a bloc with Canada at the UN, were uncertain. While Australia is traditionally pro-Israel, the country’s Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, had proposed abstaining. Some in Australia interpreted that as a desire to avoid flack as the country campaigns for a seat on the Security Council.

“The parties should be building trust. Pushing the UN path is counter-productive to achieving this trust. We should encourage the Palestinians to return to peace talks instead,” Mr. Baird was to tell acting Australian foreign minister Craig Emerson, who was the trade minister filling in while Mr. Rudd was recovering from heart surgery, according to a briefing note.

If Mr. Emerson or ministers from other countries raised concerns that Israel was undermining Middle East trust by allowing settlements to be built on occupied land, Mr. Baird intended to agree that that, too, was unhelpful. “Settlements are counter-productive to efforts to reach a negotiated agreement,” his briefing notes for the calls stated.

A spokesman for Mr. Baird, Joseph Lavoie, said the calls were made to press Ottawa’s argument that the Palestinian-statehood resolution would be an obstacle to Mideast peace.

“Minister Baird called the countries in question to express Canada’s position that this resolution would make a resumption of peace talks more difficult and raise expectations without changing the facts on the ground to improve lives,” he said.

Mr. Baird’s role, clearly, was not to prevent the Security Council from recognizing a Palestinian state – none of the countries on the calls list were Security Council members.

But with the United States vowing to veto such recognition in the Security Council, the Palestinian Authority had threatened a Plan B – to ask the wider General Assembly, made up of all UN members, to upgrade its status from “entity” to “non-member observer state.” It would almost certainly win that vote, but Israel, the United States and Canada lobbied to try to keep the vote from being lopsided and to ensure that many of the world’s democracies sided with Israel.

“There is this notion that if an anti-Israel resolution is denied a majority of those countries, like the Europeans, or the ones that have some kind of track record of adherence to democratic principles, it mitigates the impact of the anti-Israel resolution,” said Shimon Fogel, the chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

The briefing notes sometimes attempted to provide a little background on which way the country tends to lean on Mideast issues. Chile, for example, had already recognized Palestinian statehood, but refused to take a position on its borders. Biographies of the foreign ministers were attached, explaining, for example, that Panamanian Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela not only has been supportive of Canadian participation in the country’s mining industry; he’s also a member of the strict Catholic group Opus Dei.

Before the eight calls in August, Mr. Baird met in July with Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran PLO figure dispatched by Mr. Abbas as his envoy on the statehood campaign. A briefing note for that meeting indicated that Ms. Ashrawi would not be expecting the Harper government to change its mind on the resolution, but would probably instead ask the Harper government not to lobby others. In fact, Ms. Ashrawi publicly asked Ottawa not to lobby – to no avail.

Justin Ling is Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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