Harry Sterling
The Star
July 28, 2011 - 12:00am

Will Foreign Minister John Baird visit Palestine at the very moment Palestinian authorities seek a controversial vote at the United Nations recognizing Palestine as an independent state?

That is what many are wondering following a meeting July 26 in Ottawa between Baird and Palestinian representative Hanan Ashrawi.

Ashrawi is no ordinary envoy. She is a big hitter within the PLO, a Christian legislator, the first woman elected to the Palestine National Council, and highly respected as a moderate and pragmatic negotiator by the Americans.

Sending such a high profile representative to meet Baird appears to be a well-thought-out effort to take advantage of Baird’s publicly stated intention to promote a more dynamic and effective Canadian foreign policy and an attempt by the Palestine authorities to persuade Canada not to reject the forthcoming UN resolution on Palestinian independence.

According to Ashrawi, 64, there was a useful exchange of views on the Palestinian issue and Baird accepted an invitation to visit the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, Ashrawi hoping it could be before the September vote.

Baird’s office simply “acknowledged” the invitation from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But he may see value in portraying a meeting as an example of the Harper government’s openness to sensitive international issues, including those in the volatile Middle East, where the Prime Minister is accused of adopting positions favouring Israel.

When asked during interviews whether Arab governments consider Canada under Harper to no longer be an honest broker on Middle East issues, Ashrawi responded frankly that many countries saw no purpose in trying to convince the Harper government to look more objectively at the situation in the Middle East. She said Palestinians viewed Canada’s current policy toward Palestine as “biased.”

She said one advantage of Baird personally visiting Palestine would be to obtain a more realistic understanding of what it meant to ordinary Palestinians to live under Israeli occupation. She added that as a country known for its commitment to human rights, Canada should understand the plight of the Palestinian population under occupation. She described her meeting with Baird as “very calm and rational,” the foreign minister showing a “willingness to discuss and learn” about the Palestinian situation.

For his part, when I asked Baird for his impression of his conversation with Ashrawi, he described her as “articulate” and someone who expressed her views in a moderate fashion, describing the meeting as quite useful.

Although fact-finding missions obviously can be useful, some might question the point of such visits if they raise false expectations of changed policies toward such a complex issue as Palestinian independence.

U.S. President Barack Obama himself has said the upcoming vote at the UN will be counterproductive and should be dropped.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described the vote as being “without meaning,” and that Canada would not accept any deal involving Hamas, considered a terrorist organization.

Ashrawi countered that Hamas is part of the political landscape and cannot simply be ignored. In any event, the recently announced reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas would establish a government of technocrats.

Given the Harper government’s current position, cynics will want to know what useful purpose a visit to Palestine would serve: Would it be anything more than a purely cosmetic effort to appear open-minded about such a sensitive issue without actually changing what is perceived as a pro-Israel policy?

But Ashrawi clearly sees a visit differently. She is an intelligent, shrewd, flexible negotiator, and realistic about what can be achieved in dealings with others.

She is extremely well-educated — having a master’s degree from the American University of Beirut and a PhD from the University of Virginia.

From 1991 to 1993 she was the official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process and in 2003 was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. Revealingly, she resigned as Palestinian minister of higher education in 1998 over political corruption under Yasser Arafat’s rule and his approach to the peace process.

Ashrawi is not without controversy. Some Israeli groups have denounced her as the moderate face of an organization that still harbours extremists who do not accept Israel’s very existence.

However, Yael Dayan, an Israeli politician, has been quoted as saying Ashrawi is “. . . very courageous, and she contributes quite a lot to the peace process.”

Clearly, the Palestinian Authority is hoping Ashrawi’s relatively impressive stature will enable its views to at least receive a better hearing from Baird in his new capacity as Canada’s foreign minister.

Although there is no reason to believe Prime Minister Harper himself would do a serious about-face on Middle East issues — as he belatedly did in reversing his negative approach to relations with China — a Baird visit to Palestine would introduce a greater degree of reality into a complex and volatile subject which the UN confronts in September.

Ashrawi summed up her own approach by saying, “We do not give up on Canada.”


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