Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty journeyed to the West Bank on Monday to beard the Palestinian lions in their den.
Over lunch with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then later with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Foreign Minister Riad Maliki, the Ottawa tag-team went out of its way to impress upon the Palestinian leadership that it should abandon its efforts to obtain United Nations recognition and return to the negotiating table with Israel “without preconditions.”
It was chutzpah of the highest order.
Adopting a harder line than any of Canada’s allies, Mr. Baird told Mr. Maliki, then repeated it in front of reporters, that it was “profoundly wrong” to take the case for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations, and it is far preferable to resume negotiations with Israel than insist that Israel halt settlement construction before resuming direct talks.
“Unilateral action by either side is not helpful,” Mr. Baird acknowledged in an apparent reference to new Israeli settlement construction. “But the two sides would be better off talking [to each other]rather than not talking.”
As for Hamas, many of whose members are being held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons, Mr. Baird said, “We have no interest in interacting with Hamas. It is a terrorist organization.”
Noting that Hamas is currently in reconciliation talks with Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement, Mr. Baird set out certain steps Hamas would have to take should it seek Canadian recognition.
“You’re not a terrorist organization,” he said, “if you renounce terrorism ... if you recognize the right of Israel to exist ... if you support a Jewish homeland in the state of Israel ... if you respect and honour peace treaties entered into with Israel.”
The list is in keeping with that set out by the Quartet – the diplomatic group of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations working to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace. But it has one significant addition: the acceptance of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, an addition that was carefully noted by Palestinian officials.
For his part, Mr. Maliki employed diplomatic language and described the discussions between him and Mr. Baird as “clear and frank.”
A Palestinian official later said they found Mr. Baird’s bluntness “refreshing.”
“There’s no mistaking where he stands,” the official said, somewhat admiringly.
One positive thing Mr. Baird did emphasize was how “incredibly thrilled” he was with the increase in security in the West Bank, a development that also benefits Israel.
Citing Canada’s assistance in training Palestinian judiciary, police, prosecutors and correction officers, he said, “Canada considers this money well spent.”
While Mr. Baird was making his case with the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Mr. Flaherty was meeting with Jihad al-Wazir, governor of the Palestinian Monetary Authority.
During his time in Israel this week, the Finance Minister is expected to explore ways in which the 15-year-old Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement can be expanded to include trade in services and investment, and its market access for goods improved.
In a presentation on Monday evening to a private gathering at the Herzliya Conference, Mr.Baird, who is on his third visit to Israel, explained why the Harper government “believes so passionately in Israel’s right not only to exist, but to exist as a Jewish state and to live in peace and security.”
In part, he said, it is because “the state of Israel embodies principles that Canada values and respects.”
“It is also, in no small measure,” he added, “because Canada recognizes the long and unbroken history of anti-Semitism.”
“Israel today,” he said, “is a country whose very existence is under attack, both literally and figuratively.”
“Whether it is rockets raining down on Israeli schools, or the constant barrage of rhetorical demonization, double standards and delegitimization, Israel is under attack.”
“The easy thing to do,” Mr. Baird said, “would be simply to go along with anti-Israeli sentiment to get along with other countries.
Taking a swipe at Canada’s own historical stands on Middle East issues, Mr. Baird, who has been Foreign Minister for eight months, said “it would be easier to pretend that engaging in anti-Israeli rhetoric is being somehow even-handed and to excuse it under the false pretence of being an ‘honest broker.’”
“But Canada will not ‘go along to get along,’” he said.
With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa