The Palestinian Authority, which had bitter words for Ottawa just a year ago, is now offering praise, and the Harper government – known for its staunch pro-Israel views – is opening the purse strings to send new aid.
The rapprochement does not entail a shift in the Conservatives’ support for Israel, but it is clear that the government is looking to strike a gentler, friendlier tone with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
The visit to Ottawa on Thursday of Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, had a warmer tone from both sides that fits the new environment: as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presses peace talks and confidence-building measures, divisive rhetoric is less welcome.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, repeatedly referring to Mr. al-Maliki as a friend, announced that Ottawa will contribute $5-million to “kick-start” a Palestinian economic-development fund being planned by Mr. Kerry – making Canada the first country, Mr. al-Maliki noted, to commit money.
Mr. Baird took pains to play down conflicts. “We have honest differences of opinion as we do with most friends,” he said. He even remarked that Canada and the Palestinian Authority “see eye-to-eye” on many issues in the region.
Only a year ago, the Palestinian bid for observer-state status at the United Nations brought a harsh rebuke from Mr. Baird. After the vote, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat castigated the Conservative government as “more settler than the settlers” and insisted that Canada would be “disqualified” from any role in the peace process.
On Thursday, Mr. al-Maliki said both sides should move on. “Of course, many words have been said, last year, the year before, by all of us,” he said. “And if we want to see ourselves as hostage to these words, we cannot really move anywhere.”
In fact, he went further, offering praise for Canadian support. “They have been very honest in trying to help and to build trust and to do their utmost to bring the parties together and even to see the process being successful,” he said. “… At the same time Canada has been a major contributor towards capacity-building and institution-building in the Palestinian Authority, and that’s very important.”
And on the Canadian side, there are material signals of a change in tone. Canadian aid to the Palestinian territories, which once appeared under threat over the UN state-status dispute, is flowing.
In April, when a five-year, $300-million aid package ran out, the Canadian government chose to stretch it, rather than renew it, by allowing the unspent money to be doled out over a sixth year. But in June, it announced $25-million in new aid, and on Thursday, the new $5-million contribution.
And Mr. Baird indicated that the Canadian government is planning to create another multi-year aid package after its internal reviews are complete. “We’re certainly very keen to build on the multi-year investments we’ve made in the past and return to that,” the Foreign Affairs Minister said.
The shift is due in part to a changing political climate. With U.S.-brokered peace talks underway, the Palestinian Authority has agreed to a pause in which it will not take its statehood campaign to other UN-affiliated organizations.
Michael Bell, a University of Windsor Mideast expert and former Canadian diplomat, said that Stephen Harper’s government may have decided that some of its rhetoric and symbolic gestures have been counter-productive, including Mr. Baird’s controversial April meeting with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem – an area seized in 1967 that Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. The government hasn’t shifted its stand on Israel, but may be moving to adopt a “more positive, more congenial” tone with Palestinians, he said.
And he said it’s worth noting Israel wants its friends, like Canada, to be involved in providing aid for the West Bank to promote security and the economy, especially as Mr. Kerry makes a broad push for international assistance. “They’ve encouraged us to be involved,” Mr. Bell said.
The United States, trying to build some trust between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, probably doesn’t welcome divisive statements right now, he said.