Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird has weighed in on the announcement that Israel and the Palestinians will begin peace talks after a three-year hiatus. On Sunday, July 21, Baird phoned Israeli and Palestinian officials to state his support of the agreement arranged by United States Secretary of State John Kerry for a resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday July 19, 2013 from Amman, Jordan that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority agreed to sit down together for peace talks in Washington, DC. Very few details regarding the negotiations were made public, including the preconditions to restart talks.
Canada especially under Stephen Harper’s government has been Israel’s biggest supporter among the western world, appearing much more supportive than United States, especially after some of the controversial comments that came from President Barack Obama and his administration during his first term. However, the foreign minister’s most recent remarks seem to depart from past positions.
Baird phoned the Palestinians Authority’s foreign affairs minister, Riyad al-Malki, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni who has been appointed Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.
After speaking with both sides, Baird tweeted his support saying; “Negotiations will take strength, courage and compromise but in the end, peace is worth traveling this difficult road.” Additionally he tweeted; “Pleased to hear progress is being made between Israel and the Palestinians. Canada strongly believes in a two-state solution.”
When speaking to Livni, Baird told her that Israel would have to make “hard compromises” and the “pressure” of the talks will be on the Israelis, implying that Israel is the one that will have to make greater concessions during the talks.
While Baird told Malki; “This was an opportunity that we should not lose.” The foreign minister seemed to go lighter on the Palestinians, despite their adamant refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
It was surprising based on Canada’s strong support of Israel that its foreign minister was pressuring Israel that the whole negotiation process is based on them making concessions, basically blaming Israel that any potential failure of the talks will be their fault. Baird’s rhetoric was contradictory to his past actions, which have been staunchly pro-Israel.
Just last month, in mid-June, Baird met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel to further discuss the bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement which the two countries finalized in April. An agreement meant to expand the economic, trade and cultural associations between Canaa and Israel. Baird was also stands firm with Israel position to defend themselves from a possibly nuclear weapons capable Iran.
At their meeting Baird reasserted Canada’s position on Israel stating; “Canada strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself by itself, and its right to exist in full peace and security.” Baird also brought up support for a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians continuing his comments saying; “Canada is committed to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace negotiated between Israel and Palestinians.”
At the end of May, Baird reiterate his support for Israel to Canadian Jews when he spoke at Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal to 400 attendees, a gala fundraiser dinner for Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In his remarks, Baird brought up Canada’s position on a possible peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Baird emphasized Canada and the Harper government’s unwavering support of Israel despite “the litany of hate” that has resulted in the country’s position on Israel and the Middle East. Baird also told the fundraiser attendees that Israel as a right to defend itself from security threats, including Iran.
The Foreign Minister also told the crowd that he was told not be too pro-Israel by the federal government, because it might trigger a boycott from the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement. Baird was referring to his visit to Israel this past April, where he met Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in her office in East Jerusalem, and an Israeli army outpost in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border, two areas beyond the 1967 borders and where most foreign diplomats do not visit while in Israel.
Baird had gone against direct orders from the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv with his actions, but had earned praise from Israel and the Jewish community. His joint statement with Netanyahu after their meeting during that trip focused on Israel independent decision, despite the criticism of outside countries; “Today, the Jewish People are masters of their own fate, like other nations, in their own sovereign, Jewish, state. Like other nations, Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself.”
Baird also discussed at the dinner the potential resumption of peace talks that US Secretary of State Kerry was trying to negotiate. His words solidly supported Israel, differing from what Baird supposedly told Livni this past Sunday.
Although he remained consistent in supporting a two state solution, Baird stated Canada does not support peace talks with preconditions. He claimed; “We do not believe that unilateral action by one side is justified by the unilateralism of the other side”…. And Israel’s “Jewishness must be recognized as a fundamental tenet of its existence.” Palestinians still adamantly oppose recognizing Israel’s existence.
Canada has not stated anything further in regards to preconditions after the announcement. However, both Secretary of State Kerry and the Palestinians are insisting on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps. It would leave the country too narrow in the center and virtually indefensible. The pre-1967 Yom Kippur War borders would take away from Israel, Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
Additionally, Kerry and the Palestinians support building a freeze in Israeli settlements that are located beyond the bounds of the 1967 borders, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Kerry is also stressing the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State.
Israel has agreed to release 82 Palestinian prisoners from the pre-1993 Oslo Accords; these prisoners had committed terrorist attacks against Israel, which caused the deaths of Israelis.
Baird’s past record as foreign minister has been supportive of Israel, favoring the country in most debates. In January 2012, Baird gave his first speech emphasizing Canada’s position on a possible resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians; “The status quo is not an option. We support a two-state solution that is negotiated by the two parties in good faith and without preconditions.” Continuing he stated Israel “embodies principles that Canada values and respects. It is a beacon of light in a region that craves freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
During this same speech he fervently stated Canada is against anti-Zionism; “For a country like Canada, the easy thing to do would be simply to go along with anti-Israeli sentiment, to get along with other countries.” Baird’s comment’s established Canada and the foreign minister as Israel’s best champions.
Later in November 2012, Baird went to the United Nations to personally speak out against UN recognition of a Palestinian state, stating; “As a result of this body’s utterly regrettable decision to abandon policy and principle, we will be considering all available next steps.”
Baird’s actions have prompted high praise from Netanyahu who declared in April; “It’s not always easy to stand among the few, but you have I think exemplified that kind of moral and political leadership that resonates with every Israeli and every person of decency in the world, so thank you and welcome.”
Despite Canada’s strong support of Israel, the Harper government is still providing $300 million in aid to the Palestinians territories, and just this June gave $25 million in immediate assistance. Coupled with the harsher rhetoric towards Israel after the peace talks resumption announcement, one is has to wonder if Canada has now changing its position on Israel. The Canadian Jewish community and Israel should hope this tougher stance was the exception rather than Canada’s new general rule.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.