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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, shake hands during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, shake hands during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

If Israel is an ally, press them for peace, Abbas urges Canada Add to ...

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas delivered a message to Canada this week: Now that you are Israel’s best friend, use your relationship to push the country into substantive peace talks.

In two hours of talks with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas didn’t expect to change the Harper government’s staunch support for Israel, according to Majdi al-Khaldi, an adviser to Mr. Abbas who attended the meetings. Instead, Mr. Abbas challenged Canada to use its new tight-knit ties to put pressure on Israel.

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“We told the two ministers, the Foreign Minister and your Finance Minister, that you as Canada are friends of Israel, and are eligible to play even a better role as friends of Israel,” Mr. al-Khaldi said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.

“We want this government of Israel to be helped by their friends, friends that can tell them that it’s better to start now, not to lose the chance for solving this long-standing conflict based on the two-state solution. Because I think if the settlement activities continue, we will not find any piece of land to build the two-state solution.”

In both Israel and the West Bank, Mr. Baird has delivered blunt messages of support for Israel, and opposition to Mr. Abbas’s bid to have the UN recognize a Palestinian state – which Mr. Baird publicly termed “profoundly wrong.”

But in their private meeting Monday, Mr. Abbas sought not to change Ottawa’s close relationship with Israel, but to use its influence “for the sake of the two peoples,” according to his adviser. Mr. Abbas harboured no expectation he could persuade Mr. Baird and the Harper government to change its staunch pro-Israel stand, Mr. al-Khaldi said.

“If this [Canadian]government is convinced this is their plan, and this is what they think, why do we have to change their minds about that? We explained to them our position, and it’s up to them to be convinced and to understand, or not understand,” Mr. al-Khaldi said.

Mr. Abbas’s plea is a twist on an old Canadian diplomatic concept that Ottawa can play a role as “honest broker” for a Middle East solution by avoiding the appearance of bias; Some of Mr. Harper’s critics have argued his government has been too one-sided to play a useful role for peace. Mr. Baird, in fact, ridiculed that criticism in a speech in Israel on Monday, calling it moral weakness that excuses anti-Israel rhetoric “under the false pretence of being an ‘honest broker.’ “

The Palestinian leader made a vastly different argument: that as a close ally, Canada now has greater responsibility to urge Israel to make peace.

Mr. Baird told Mr. Abbas that “he would see what he could do” when he left the West Bank to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli figures, Mr. al-Khaldi said, although he did not portray that as a specific commitment. Mr. Baird’s spokesman, Rick Roth, said in an e-mail the minister “enjoyed a frank exchange with President Abbas on a broad range of issues, including the Middle East Peace Process.”

“Our priority and our policy supports a two-state solution negotiated between the two parties, and the minister echoed that to both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said in the e-mail. “As the minister said, the status quo is not an option, and the two parties need to move beyond negotiating about negotiations and return to the table without preconditions.”

The question of who should be pushed to start real peace talks is itself a source of deep disagreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. They have held four rounds of “exploratory” talks in January in Jordan in a bid to relaunch the peace process, with no sign of a breakthrough.

Palestinian officials insist Israeli settlements on occupied lands must stop, and that talks over territory should be based on pre-war 1967 borders, plus land swaps, a position adopted in UN Security Council resolutions. Mr. Netanyahu has said there should be no conditions, but rejects the 1967 borders; leaks from talks in Jordan indicate Israel is arguing it should retain existing settlements built on occupied territory.

There’s been little public sign that Mr. Harper’s government would be inclined to take up Mr. Abbas’s challenge – at least in the way he means it. On Monday, Mr. Baird said the peace process should be resumed without conditions.

“This is not a right thing to say. Because it’s not going to help anyone,” Mr. al-Khaldi said. Using the 1967 borders as the basis for the talks is not a new condition, but long-established “international law” and the position of the so-called Quartet – the UN, the United States, the European Union and Russia – seeking to broker peace talks, he said.

Canada, he suggested, goes farther in supporting Israel than the United States, he suggested. “He should say what the Americans say, at least.”

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