Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood beside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and insisted he has not taken Israel's position on the Middle East and made it Canada's, in a first meeting with Palestinian leaders that played down disagreement but didn't display warmth.
Mr. Harper came bringing pledges of new aid, but also rebuffed questions about Israeli settlements by saying he wouldn't stand in the Middle East and criticize Israel. And he insisted that his support for Israel has not given short shrift to the plight of Palestinians.
"Obviously, Canada understands very well the challenges that Palestinians are faced with. It's the reason why, for a long time, and again today, we support certain measures to improve the life and progress of Palestinians and their state," he said. "At the same time, we support the peace process."
"Canada has a position of principle supported by the vast majority of Canadians. It's not an Israeli position or Palestinian position, it's a Canadian position. But at its core, the position is for the two parties to find a solution to the problems and the disputes between them."
Mr. Harper has left little doubt on this trip that he has no intention to water down his support for Israel, but his presence in Ramallah is also part of an attempt to move beyond tensions dating from Canada's vocal opposition to a Palestinian bid for observer-state status at the UN in 2012.
But on a key point of controversy, Israeli settlements in occupied lands, Mr. Harper, at a joint press conference with Mr. Abbas, tartly rebuffed questions about whether he views them as illegal. Canada's foreign affairs department, on its website, refers to land seized in 1967 as occupied land, but Mr. Harper's spokesman last week would not say whether that is still government policy. Mr. Harper indicated, in an indirect way, that the policy itself has not changed, but also that he won't say it – insisting he won't come to the Middle East and criticize Israel for settlements.
"You won't be surprised by my answer, which is to be very clear to you that any attempt to have me, while present in the Middle East, single out the state of Israel for criticism, I will not do. And I've been very clear on that in the past," he said when asked about settlements. "The positions of the government on the specific matter you mention are well-known, they are public, they are known to both parties."
Mr. Harper was greeted by Mr. Abbas inside the gates of his Muqa'ata presidential compound, before a ceremony where a band played O Canada and Mr. Harper reviewed a Palestinian honour guard. He then met with Mr. Abbas privately and had a broader meeting with Canadian and Palestinian Authority officials.
The Palestinian Authority president expressed appreciation for the aid, and was diplomatic about disagreements – insisting Canada is a sovereign state and has a right to take the positions it chooses, and that the way to make their stances closer is through dialogue. On the Palestinians' UN bid, he said he knows Canada did not vote for it, "and we hope that in future this will change and circumstance will change, and we will achieve deeper relations than we have presently."
Mr. Harper did bring new aid, $66-million to be spent over three to five years, to bolster the Palestinian private sector and justice and security institutions. The pledge of money comes on top of $30-million announced last November – but it still hasn't matched the larger sums provided until last year.
Ottawa provided a $300-million aid package to Palestinians between 2008 and 2013, or roughly $60-million per year. That money ran out last April, but no new broad multiyear package replaced it – and Mr. Harper's government has parcelled out pledges in separate waves: $30-million committed last year, and another $66-million, to be spread over three to five years, announced Monday.
The new aid money, according to a government statement, will primarily go to economic development and the justice and security sector – although the details were vague, and in most cases the government said the specific programs are yet to be detailed. The $66-million in aid will be provided over three to five years, a spokesman said, and much of it will not go directly to the Palestinian Authority.
One main thrust is to promote economic development, notably the Palestinian private sector and women entrepreneurs. A government release said the money would help "start-up firms and existing micro, small and mid-sized enterprises improve their competitiveness and access to markets." It didn't provide specifics.
The aid will also include technical assistance for the Palestinian Security Forces, working with U.S. programs to professionalize Palestinian police and security. Unspecified sums will also go to the World Food Programme to aid non-refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to the Quartet Representative – the organization to promote Palestinian daily life and cooperation in the West Bank organized by the "quartet" of the United Nations, United States Russia, and the European Union.