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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Harper's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 31, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Canada has changed the way it votes on Middle East issues at the United Nations, taking a firmly pro-Israel stand.

The Harper government described Thursday's move as a protest against a flurry of "one-sided" UN resolutions on Israel, not a change in the country's positions on the substantive issues in the Middle East.

Observers said capitals around the world will see it as a policy shift and question where Ottawa actually stands on issues like Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan.

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In nine votes at a committee of the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Canada consistently voted with a small group of Israel's staunchest allies. On five, including resolutions condemning Israeli settlements and Israel's treatment of people displaced by the Six-Day War, Ottawa voted No alongside Israel, the United States and four small South Pacific island nations – Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Nauru.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called it an expression of frustration with resolution-making at the UN.

"This series of resolutions against Israel is generally one-sided, unbalanced and does not address the complexities of the issues, nor seeks to address the true actions and responsibilities of all parties," he said in a statement. "While this does not signal a change in Canada's long-standing policy regarding the Middle East peace process, it does clearly relay our frustration with the current UN process."

The explanation of the vote that Canada placed on the UN record added: "Rockets rain down on Israeli schools without condemnation in these resolutions."

The votes fit the pro-Israeli stand that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken since 2006, but mark a change from Canada's historical approach. For example, Canada voted against the settlements resolution on Thursday even though it has previously backed similar resolutions.

"It's stretching imagination to say that our policy hasn't changed," said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Other countries will view it as a change, because these votes are among the main ways countries express their policy, he said. He called it part of a general shift in which Mr. Harper's government has sought to be "as helpful to Israel as possible."

It will affect the role Canada can play in the Middle East, he said. In the past, Israel asked Canada to intervene with Arab governments to moderate criticism. "I don't think that would be possible today," he said.

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The official Canadian explanation indicated Ottawa doesn't necessarily disagree with the resolutions it opposed. Canada voted against a resolution on whether the Geneva Convention applied during the 1949 Middle East War, but the statement said Canada believes Israel is bound by it.

Canada said one-sided criticism won't help get to a negotiated peace. "Until there is a more balanced approach, Canada will continue to express its discontent with the process through votes like today's," the official explanation said.

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