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It is time to set the record straight on Canada's policies toward the Middle East as we anticipate Prime Minister Stephen Harper's official visit to Israel, which begins Jan. 20.

Critics have unfairly lambasted the government for a one-dimensional, Israel-centred policy. But as Benjamin Disraeli said of his own partisan detractors, "How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct."

Mr. Harper's government has worked hard to strengthen its relations with the Arab world as a complement to its strong and principled position on unilateral Palestinian statehood and unabashed support for Israel, the region's only genuine democracy. (Our previous United Nations record on issues affecting Israel had been one of persistent abstention.)

We are activists in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, not sitting on our hands as some allege. Canada supports the Palestinian Authority's efforts to build the institutions and infrastructure for a viable Palestinian state. We have opened our wallets with a $5-million contribution to support economic growth and job creation in the West Bank and Gaza and another $25-million for humanitarian assistance, security reform and assistance to the Office of the Quartet Representative. We favour a settlement that confers both legitimate statehood for Palestinians and recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace.

Foreign Minister John Baird has developed strong relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the West Bank. Canada has launched a strategic dialogue with the Persian Gulf's key regional body, the Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes co-operation on counterterrorism and other initiatives to counter extremism.

Although the government supports the P5+1 talks with Iran, we have expressed understandable caution about its prospects, as have others, including many Americans. We hew to the old Russian proverb embraced by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan – "trust but verify."

Canada supports a verifiable deal that gives UN inspectors unfettered access to all of Iran's nuclear facilities and under which Iran ratifies the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA and signs and ratifies the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

Canada does not oppose the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in the region. In fact, we recently signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the UAE that is fully compliant with international safeguards.

Canada has not shut out Iran by closing our embassy there. We launched a continuing dialogue with the people of Iran via the Internet by offering a much-needed platform for Iranian dissidents and human-rights advocates. We have been champions of the Iran human-rights resolution at the UN in New York. This approach is as innovative as it is principled. It is preferable to bland, passive recognition of terrorist-spawning regimes.

With the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, our guarded approach was one that liberal-minded Egyptians applauded.

Unlike other Western countries, Canada did not recognize Syria's freedom fighters as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We had concerns about terrorist elements in their midst, the lack of representation of women and whether the opposition was religiously and ethnically reflective of the Syrian people. Such concerns are now widely shared. Just two weeks ago, the United States ended military support to the Syrian opposition. However, Canada has provided $317-million in direct humanitarian support for Syria and an additional $110-million for development projects in Jordan and Lebanon.

When it comes to human rights more generally, Canada, and Mr. Baird in particular, are front and centre in denouncing forced marriages of underaged girls.

Canada is not in a position to guarantee security to anyone in the Middle East. We have focused instead on smart diplomacy with humanitarian assistance and a consistent defence of values we cherish. That is the reality of our diplomacy in the region.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Fulbright and was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University.

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