Canada believes Israel went too far when it declared its intent to build 3,000 new settlement units in a controversial tract of the West Bank in response to the Palestinians achieving non-member state status at the UN last week.
In a Dec. 1 phone conversation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the planned construction of new settlements by Israel hampers prospects for peace, according to a Dec. 6 report in The Globe and Mail.
Calls by The CJN to Harper’s office for further comment were not immediately returned.
Speaking in the House of Commons during question period on Dec. 5, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird elaborated on Canada’s position on Israeli settlement plans.
“The Palestinian Authority's action and provocative rhetoric at the United Nations would obviously elicit a response from Israel. Neither is helpful to advance the cause of peace and we do not support either,” he said.
Up to that point, Canada’s response to Israel’s plans to expand settlements had been muted, stating simply that unilateral actions on either side were “unhelpful” to the peace process.
It appears to be the harshest public critique of Netanyahu’s government by the Harper government since 2010, when then-foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon admonished Israel’s settlement plans at the time involving east Jerusalem.
“We firmly believe in two sovereign states living side by side in harmony. That is the position that the government of Canada has put forward," Cannon told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
“On expansion into east Jerusalem, we feel that this is contrary to international law and therefore condemn it. We’re very concerned with what is taking place.”
Rick Roth, senior spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, insisted that Harper’s conversation didn’t convey a departure from Canada’s core messaging on the peace process.
“We've been consistently clear: unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process,” he wrote to The CJN in an email.
But the House of Commons statement by Baird and Harper’s conversation with Netanyahu veer away from the Conservative government’s longstanding position of standing in lockstep with the Jewish state on all decisions by the Netanyahu government regarding the peace process. It may be the first time either Harper or Baird have publicly framed settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace.
However, Canada’s standing policy on Israeli settlements expressly acknowledges them as such.
“Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s website.
The message to Netanyahu also brings Canada more in line with Middle East peace positions taken by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and by members of the European Union, including Germany and France.
Both the Americans and Europeans criticized Israel for the settlement decision, calling it an unnecessary retaliation for the Palestinians’ victory at the UN last week.
While in Germany on Wednesday to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu said Israel’s plans to build in the E1 tract between Jerusalem and the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, east of the capital, would not be stopped.
“Israel will keep the planned settlement corridor under any future peace deal,” he said. “Most governments who have looked at these proposals over the years including the Palestinians themselves… understand that these blocs… are going to be part of Israel in a final political settlement of peace.”
Netanyahu also rejected international admonishment of Israel for its plans to expand settlements, calling critics “oversensitive.”
“What’s our big crime? We are building in the areas that will remain in Israel after a peace agreement,” he said. ”This is the land where Jews have been living for almost 4,000 years. We’re talking about suburbs that belong to the Jerusalem municipality. No map is being changed and nothing is being prejudged.”
He said contrary to what many western allies may believe, the UN vote last week does not advance the peace process and in fact hampers it further.
“After the UN vote, the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas made efforts to unite with the Hamas terrorists. The resolution did not call for a recognition of the Jewish state or to end the conflict with us or to give security guarantees. Rather, it emboldened the Palestinians to harden their positions and not to enter negotiations,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier this week, Canada said it wouldn’t cut off monetary aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the wake of last week’s UN General Assembly vote granting “Palestine” non-member observer state status.
Despite his strong rhetoric aimed at the Palestinians prior to the vote, Baird appeared to back away from comments he made during his UN address, in which he warned the PA that Canada would consider “all other options” in its relations with the Palestinians.
Ottawa’s five-year, $300-million funding commitment to the PA expires in March, and Baird’s UN comments led to speculation that Canada might cancel those transfers immediately.
However, on Dec. 4, Roth said Canada would honour its financial pledge to the Palestinians, but would review the agreement in March.
At the time, Canada was also remaining steadfast in its support of Israel, despite the Netanyahu’s declaration last week that it intended to move forward with settlement expansion.
While Canada’s response remained largely silent on the settlement announcement, it was the lone voice assigning a measure of blame to the Palestinians for Israel’s response.
On Dec. 4, Baird and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino met for 90 minutes with four Canadian diplomats – Ambassador to Israel Paul Hunt; Canada’s representative in the West Bank, Chris Greenshields, and Canada’s ambassadors to the UN in New York and Geneva, Guillermo Rishchynski and Elissa Goldberg – to discuss next steps on the situation in the Middle East.
“It was a good briefing, a healthy exchange on where we are and where we want to go,” Roth told The CJN.
“For some time, Israel has been willing to negotiate unconditionally. The PLO should also. Canada will do everything we can to help. Our $300 million over five years in support of security and humanitarian aid is important. We intend to, by and large, see these projects through.”
Roth said funding for the PA is part of the international aid money administered by the Canadian International Development Agency, which Fantino will review the next April as part of standard procedure.
However, Canada still doesn’t recognize “Palestine” as a state, he said.
Roth added that Canada intends to work with the Obama administration on finding a common approach to the peace process.
Canada is concerned about what the Palestinians may try next in terms of attacking Israel diplomatically and legally now that they have upgraded their status on the world stage, Roth said.
Particularly disturbing is the PA’s potential to bring anti-Israel motions in front of other UN bodies, “especially the International Criminal Court,” Roth said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he was happy Canada would not cut funding to the PA, but that he’s disappointed with the government’s position on Israeli settlement policy.
“We haven’t seen balance from the Conservatives on the Middle East,” he told the Globe and Mail on Dec. 4.
The CJN’s calls to the NDP for comment were not immediately returned.
In comments to the Globe, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said his organization isn’t calling for “dramatic Canadian responses” to the UN vote.
He said CIJA doesn’t believe that the government is “contemplating actions like closing missions.”
With files from TimesOfIsrael.com