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Ambassador bids farewell to career as a ‘matchmaker’

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Rafael Barak

Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak, who finishes his three-year posting to Canada at the end of this month, says his job has largely been as a “matchmaker” between the two countries.

“Canada is an exceptional place for an Israeli ambassador. The support for my country is multi-partisan,” he said in an interview last week. “I’m liberated to do all the things normal ambassadors from normal countries do all over the world.”

Chief among those responsibilities has been developing economic relationships and agreements between the two countries.

Barak was in Toronto last week for one of his final duties, leading the Israeli delegation at a convention of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. The head of the Israel Water Authority and seven Israeli companies with expertise in water sanitation, leakage prevention and cybersecurity attended the conference to make contacts and find new clients.

Canada was the first ambassadorship for the Uruguay-born Barak, 66, who has spent 40 years in the diplomatic corps. The Israeli foreign service has a mandatory retirement age of 67, and he will retire when he returns to Jerusalem at the end of the month. His successor, Nimrod Barkan, who also has decades of diplomatic experience, will arrive in Ottawa in early December, he said. 

As ambassador, Barak visited all of Canada’s provinces and the north, meeting local Jewish communities, government officials and university administrators. He had a three-point strategy, focusing on developing ties between the two countries in the areas of research, technology and trade and commerce.

“I try to find what is best in Israel and what is best in Canada and bring it together. As an ambassador, I find myself as a matchmaker.”

READ: GALIT BARAM: DEVELOPING TIES BETWEEN ISRAEL AND CANADA

Canada-Israel trade is worth about $1.3 billion annually, a figure that has been relatively unchanged over the last few years.”

Canada naturally looks to the United States as a market, and it’s hard to get companies to consider doing business with a small country in the Middle East, he added.

Despite that, Israeli companies are involved in projects in Canada’s oil sands, as well as the space and cybersecurity industries. During Barak’s time in Ottawa, a military attaché was appointed for the first time to work with the Canadian military and defence industries, he noted.

The two countries also signed upgraded free trade and taxation agreements to provide improved infrastructure for trade.

Barak accompanied former prime minister Stephen Harper to Israel in 2014, and more recently, he was part of a delegation, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that travelled to Israel to attend former president Shimon Peres’ funeral. 

The Trudeau government may be different in tone than its predecessor, but it is equally supportive of Israel, Barak said.

“If I look at the bottom line – votes at the UN, attitudes – there is no change,” he said. “I have met a majority of Trudeau’s ministers. They’re also eager to co-operate and work with us.”

As for the new government forming in the United States, led by Donald Trump, Barak says it’s too early to tell what direction it will take. “Statements are statements, but the formulation of policy does take a little more time. The U.S. has been very supportive of our security. We are sure the friendship will continue.”

Israel has objected to the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it gives the country a free pass to develop nuclear weapons down the road. It’s closely watching what Trump – who has said both that he will scrap and enforce the deal – will do about it.

Canada, Barak said, “lives in a situation we Israelis envy. You don’t have any major threats on your border.”

Speaking about Israel’s standing here, he said the challenge posed by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is “decreasing significantly.”

READ: BDS WANING IN CANADA, MAYORS SAY DURING ISRAEL TRIP

The Israeli government has responded to BDS by bringing Canadian university presidents and administrators to visit Israeli universities, where they can see the diversity of students on campuses, he said.

The greatest challenge his successor will face, he believes, is to continue nurturing the relationships Israel has with Canadians.

“This is not something I built from scratch, but something my predecessors worked at,” he said. “It’s not only the Israeli-Canadian relationship, it is the world is changing also. When you’re in an important country – Canada’s in the G7 – you also have to pay attention to the change in the world and how this is affecting Canada and how it may affect Israel.”