In media coverage of political events, content and substance often get lost to hype and sensationalism. The proceedings of the Prime Minister's visit to the Middle East, and the manifestations of his foot-in-mouth disease, stole the show from the trip's foreign policy implications. To those of us with a vested interest in Canadian policy in the region, more concerns have arisen as a result of the PM's visit than existed prior to it. Here's why.
Canada has long refused to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, stating that the fate of the city is to be determined through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Why then did the PM have all his meetings with Israeli officials in Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv? Why did Jean Chrétien not offer similar treatment to Palestinian officials? Not only did he refuse to set foot in Arab East Jerusalem, he made light of the situation by proclaiming not to know which part of the city he actually was in. Was that the PM's awkward way to signal Canada's support of Israeli claims on the city?
The PM's statement that it is acceptable for the Palestinians to use the threat of unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) as part of the negotiations with Israel was equally clumsy. Rather than advocate the use of UDI as a bargaining chip, the PM should have made a clear statement indicating Canadian support for a Palestinian state. Seeing as Canada recognizes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as occupied territories, and has long acknowledged the Palestinian plight consequent to the creation of Israel in 1948, supporting the right of Palestinians to a homeland would have been the right and honourable thing to do. It would also have been consistent with the evolution of Canadian policy regarding the Palestinians. Long-standing Canadian policy has been to maintain neutrality in the negotiations between Israel and Syria over the status of the Golan heights. Declaring that Israel ought to keep control over the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) was a serious break from that policy. Knowing that water is the region's scarcest and most valuable resource, and that the negotiations between Syria and Israel are at an almost-explosive impasse, what value did the PM's declaration add? Again, was this a change in Canadian policy or just the off-the-cuff remark it appeared to be?
Canada is chair of the Refugee Working Group, an international committee charged with determining the fate of 3.5 million Palestinian refugees. The future of these refugees is also the stickiest point in the final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The phrase "right of return" (to homes in pre-Israel Palestine) has been an integral part of five decades of Palestinian history and psyche. Regardless of whether the PM has committed Canada to accepting a specific number (15,000 was reported) of Palestinian refugees, he has clearly accepted that part of the Palestinian refugee population may be settled outside of Palestine. Why did the PM pre-empt the negotiations by accepting the Israeli position that Palestinians do not have the "right of return?" Finally, the PM's itinerary was conspicuously lacking an acknowledgment of Palestinians as a people and a culture. This could have been achieved by visiting some of the main centres of Palestinian cultural, intellectual, political and spiritual life such as Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, Birzeit University, and Orient House. Instead, he limited his dealings to a one-hour meeting with Yasser Arafat in Gaza.
The actual motives and achievements of the PM's visit to the Middle East are yet to unfold. Positive outcomes, for Canada and the region, if any, are hard to surmise at this stage. The only certainty is that Canada's policy in the region is badly in need of clarification. Raja George Khouri is vice-president of the Canadian Arab Federation.