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Despite private jitters over a potential backlash from Arab Canadians, Liberal MPs yesterday defended their government's shift on the Middle East at the United Nations, in which Canada climbed off the fence to vote with a small group of countries backing Israel on a contentious resolution.

The move is viewed as a shift in stand for Canada, although the government insisted it does not veer from the country's "balanced" approach.

"I think that we've attempted in the past and we continue to try to get a position that's balanced, but clearly we want to reinforce the fact that we support countries that are democratic, that support the same values that we support, i.e., the rule of law, freedom, human rights. And we try to reflect that in all of our actions at the UN," Human Resources Minister Joe Volpe said.

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Although some Arab-Canadian groups have criticized the change in Canada's stand on voting at the UN, Mr. Volpe insisted it should not upset anyone -- and that the Liberal government was not considering how it could affect their political support.

"I don't think we're making a calculation on how many are on this side of the ledger and how many are on the other. Our policy is based on the Canadian values structure and also giving Canada a larger role in the world."

Privately, however, some Liberal MPs expressed concern that the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin has turned substantially more pro-Israel, and that its actions could be motivated by an effort to meet the U.S. desire for an ally on the Middle East at the UN.

"We're selling out a large ethnic community," said one Liberal MP. "That can turn around and bite us."

On Tuesday, Canada's ambassador to the UN, Allan Rock, levelled a scathing denunciation of the General Assembly's resolutions on Israel, and indicated Canada will vote against two key resolutions on which it has abstained in the past.

Yesterday, Canada joined the United States and five other countries in voting against a General Assembly resolution on the right of Palestinians to mobilize support for their cause. The assembly adopted the resolution by a 104-7 margin, with 63 abstentions.

Mr. Rock indicated that Canada would also vote for a resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East that specifically targets Israel, which is widely believed to have a secret nuclear capability.

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A spokesman for Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew, Sébastien Théberge, said Canada's Middle East policy remains unchanged in substance but that it is important to take a clear stand on UN votes as part of efforts to make it a more effective institution.

"Canada's Middle East policy has been the same for generations. And it is rooted in a desire that two states live side by side in peace," Mr. Théberge said, adding that one must look at Canada's position on all votes on the region to judge the country's policy.

"If we want to make the UN work, the votes have to be meaningful."

That line echoed the comments of several Liberal MPs with sizable Muslim communities in their riding, who said Canada cannot support unbalanced resolutions that attack Israel without pointing out similar violations by the Palestinian Authority.

"We are now entering a time when we believe that we and many nations around the world can make material progress in assisting with the Israeli-Palestinian issues," said Scarborough-Rouge River MP Derek Lee. "For better or for worse, a lot of countries are going to have to come off the fence."

He said he understands that Jewish and Arab communities in Canada are sensitive to any shift in Canadian policy, but added there is a need for objectivity now.

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"I'm politely asking both the Palestinian Canadians and the Israeli Canadians to just back off a little bit and give everybody some elbow room to try and make progress in the Middle East," Mr. Lee said.

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