Foreign Minister John Baird has crossed symbolic lines in his visit to Israel and the Middle East in a move sure to stir suggestions he has taken the Harper government's pro-Israel stance further by taking sides in east Jerusalem.
Mr. Baird, in three days of meetings in Israel, repeatedly expressed his status as a staunch Israel supporter, in his own words, as a “true believer.”
But he also crossed a line that to Palestinians will demonstrate whose side he is on.
He met on Tuesday with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the government’s chief negotiator with Palestinians, in her department headquarters in east Jerusalem – across the Green Line and into disputed territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. For Palestinians, and under United Nations resolutions, he was meeting the Israeli government on occupied land.
On Sunday, Mr. Baird visited the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967, for a briefing on border-security concerns by Israel Defence Force officers. Israel annexed the wedge of land along the Sea of Galilee in 1981, but neither Canada nor the rest of the world has ever recognized the annexation.
In the past, foreign ministers viewed entering east Jerusalem with Israelis as a line that should not be crossed. But Mr. Baird broke that rule last year when he visited Old Jerusalem, with sites holy to Muslims, Jews, and Christians, with an Israeli escort.
Mr. Baird clearly knew stepping into areas Israel seized in 1967 as foreign minister viewed as holding symbolic importance – he even remarked Saturday, when he and his aides stopped at an east Jerusalem coffee shop, that in the past the stop would have made Canadian diplomats nervous. Mr. Baird viewed the concern as a matter of obsession with symbolic technicalities.
But a spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization said Mr. Baird was attempting to set “a very dangerous precedent.”
“It flies in the face of the international community which refuses to accept Israel’s claim of sovereignty,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a PLO spokesperson. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is President of the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank.
“It is pure hubris for the Foreign Minister [Mr. Baird] to think he could single-handedly change international law,” Ms. Ashrawi said.
Mr. Baird said he went to the Golan – his second trip there, but first as foreign minister – to hear about concerns raised by Syria’s civil war, just as he did when he visited Jordan’s border with Syria last year. “I don’t think any country has recognized the annexation," he said. “Our deep concern is for peace, with the security of Israel.”
On the West Bank, Canada’s official position is that the 1967 borders are the internationally recognized basis for negotiating a two-state solution – but as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to accept that position, the Harper government has refused to express that position categorically, instead saying that the final Israel-Palestine borders will be negotiated by the two sides.
Mr. Baird’s tour of the Middle East included a day of meetings in the West Bank with Abbas in which he signalled a willingness to work toward a new Canadian aid package, and offered support for a new diplomatic effort to kick-start peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
But Palestinian leaders clearly feel Canada sides with Israel. Mr. Abbas said Canada can be Israel’s friend, but if it is also a friend to Palestinians, it can “play a role.”
After a meeting with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki on Saturday, Mr. Baird repeated his assertions that talks must begin without preconditions – effectively, arguing that a Palestinian condition that Israel settlement activity must stop first is not justified. Mr. Baird said Sunday that he believes Israel wants to talk.
“It can be an endless list of preconditions,” Mr Baird said. “Israel is unequivocally prepared to sit down without preconditions.”
Mr. Baird’s remarks in Israel, too, have left no question about whether he strongly backs Israel. At a meeting with business leaders on Monday, he remarked that Stephen Harper has always been “so solid” on support for Israel, and now he has a foreign minister who is a “true believer.”
- With a report from Patrick Martin