Oakland Ross
The Star (Opinion)
March 17, 2008 - 6:43pm

A United Nations panel voted overwhelmingly this month to condemn Israel for a recent armed incursion in the Gaza Strip that claimed more than 120 lives, many of them civilian.

Thirty-three member countries of the 47-seat UN Human Rights Council endorsed the resolution, which accused Israel of war crimes in its ongoing battles against Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Those in favour of censuring the Jewish state included China, India and Russia. Thirteen countries abstained, among them seven European governments.

But one nation stood alone against the denunciation of Israel, and that country was not the United States – Israel's leading foreign supporter – or even Israel itself, for neither country has a seat on the human rights body.

Instead, the lone dissenter was Canada.

"We're very happy that we see things in a similar way," Carmela Shamir, deputy director of the North America division at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview last week.

"Canada has adopted several times in recent months very brave positions."

People are beginning to take notice.

"There is a widespread impression that Canada's position is more pro-Israel than it has been in the past," said Peter Jones, an assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

"It is a bit of a departure."

A tilt toward Israel was becoming apparent under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, said Jones, but the shift has become even more pronounced since Stephen Harper's Conservative government took power in Ottawa in 2006.

In January, for example, Canada announced it was pulling out of a UN anti-racism conference slated for next year in Durban, South Africa, out of concern the meeting could degenerate into a binge of Israel-bashing, which was what happened at a similar gathering there in 2001, in the view of some participants.

"Canada is interested in combating racism, not promoting it," Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, said in January.

"We'll attend any conference that is opposed to racism and intolerance, not those that actually promote racism and intolerance."

Just one other country – Israel itself – has so far withdrawn from the Durban conference, but the Israelis waited until Feb. 25, a month after the Canadian decision, before announcing they, too, would be staying home.

"Dialogue between our two governments is very good, very open," said Shamir.

To a considerable degree, it always has been.

Like other Western governments, Ottawa has fully supported the existence of Israel since its creation in 1948, and there are close cultural, political, and social ties between the two countries.

Since 1997, Israel and Canada have had a free-trade agreement, and two-way commerce has more than doubled during that time.

But the moral and political complexities of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict frequently oblige even Israel's most ardent backers – including the United States – to temper their support with sometimes blunt criticism.

During a visit here in January, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke out clearly against continuing Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem on land it annexed in 1967 and now occupies illegally in the eyes of most of the world.

But, only days later, on a visit of his own, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier seemed to muddy Ottawa's position on the same issue by declining to express specific opposition to Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem.

Like the United States and Europe, Canada has traditionally drawn no distinction between Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem and its settlements in the West Bank, opposing both.

Following Bernier's visit, however, some ambiguity seems to have crept into a once straightforward Canadian policy.

"The ambiguity raises questions," said Jones at the University of Ottawa. "I don't know what it means."

At least some other people think they do.

"I think the Harper government made a deliberate calculation," said Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation. "They are reaching out to the Jewish vote. I can't see any other reason."

Whatever its stance toward Israel, Ottawa has not abandoned the Palestinians.

Canada maintains a diplomatic office in Ramallah, the West Bank capital and disbursed $39 million in economic assistance to the Palestinian territories in the fiscal year 2006-07.

Canada fully supports the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Maybe so, says Boudjenane, but Ottawa under Harper's leadership has nonetheless adopted a "negative" tone toward Arabs and Muslims.

For example, he said, the Canadian Arab Federation recently requested a meeting with Kenney to discuss Ottawa's decision to withdraw from next year's anti-racism meeting in South Africa. But they were refused.

"This is our government, too," he said. "You cannot decide to boycott one group."

Other observers see different factors at work in what they regard as Canada's increasingly forthright backing for Israel, the sole functioning democracy in a region of authoritarian Arab states.

"Most people you talk to tend to take the view it's an ideological feeling by the Harper government," said Jones, who attributes the shift largely to a personal decision by the Prime Minister and his immediate staff.

"Certainly, around Ottawa, there's a general feeling that the (Prime Minister's Office) and the (Privy Council Office) have taken a greater interest in this part of the world."

Shamir regards the change less as an overt show of support for her country and more as a reflection of shared principles.

"I would say this government, on issues like fighting the war on terror, has a similar analysis of global trends as the Israeli government has," she said.

"I would put it in terms, not of supporting Israel, but of taking positions concurrent with Israeli ones."

Whatever its cause, one test of Ottawa's shifting Middle Eastern vision is the practical effect it stands to achieve in a region of stubborn hostilities, great suffering, and abiding fears.

"In terms of just Canada, per se, it probably does not have that great an impact" said Jones.

"But it has a diplomatic and moral impact."

Shamir welcomed the apparent shift, even though it comes from a country that is not exactly a powerhouse of international influence.

"Canada is part of the G-8," she said. "It's taking part in the global war on terror. The size of the population is not relevant."

But Boudjenane surveys the same trends and laments what he sees as a loss of Canada's once vaunted moral stature.

"We used to be one of the most respected voices," he said.

"We were seen as a peace-making nation. It was Canada's trademark. That perception unfortunately is now tainted."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017