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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa urges pressure on Hamas, restraint on Israel

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the world will be holding its breath if a ground war follows.


The Canadian government is pursuing a two-message diplomacy in response to Israel's air strikes in Gaza, urging Arab nations to press Hamas to stop rocket attacks but also expressing concern about the potential for casualties in an Israeli ground war.

In the six days since Israel launched air strikes, the message has shifted a little. On Thursday, Stephen Harper spoke to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to voice support for Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks. By the weekend, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the world will be holding its breath if a ground war follows. But the emphasis remains on calls for Egypt and others to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel.

The Canadian line largely echoes the statements of close allies – even though Ottawa has not gone as far the United States and Britain in hinting that support might cool if a ground assault is launched in Gaza.

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Events in Gaza have provoked deep worry, at least among some inside the Canadian government. The potential for escalation in a tinderbox region already roiled by several crises has created fears in Ottawa, as in other capitals. They worry a ceasefire might be hard to obtain because of Israel's difficulty in trusting a deal with Hamas or with other groups in Gaza blamed for firing rockets into Israel, notably Islamic Jihad.

Canadian diplomats have been in touch with counterparts in the region and in other Western nations since the crisis began, officials say, but Ottawa's efforts appear to be hampered by the fact it now has a weaker relationship with a key player – Egypt.

Most of Ottawa's direct, high-level diplomacy has been reserved for Israel. Mr. Harper called Mr.Netanyahu to express support for "Israel's right to defend itself, while urging Israel to take precautions to avoid civilian casualties," according to his spokesman, Andrew MacDougall. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered a similar message to his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman.

However, the Harper government has not made the same direct, high-level political contact with Egypt, even though its chief diplomatic goal – pressing Egypt to use its influence with Hamas and other Palestinian groups to stop firing rockets – passes through Cairo. Diplomats have been carrying that message "both in Cairo and here in Ottawa," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird.

Ottawa is left out of high-level exchanges in a country that is considered a lynchpin in efforts to strike a ceasefire agreement. Neither Israel nor the United States has formal ties to Hamas, let alone the more radical Islamic Jihad. Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has spoken to the leaders of both groups and received their delegations.

Mr. Morsi has also spoken to U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – but not Mr. Harper. Egypt's Foreign Minister, Mohamed Amr, has spoken to his counterparts from Britain and France, but not Mr. Baird.

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