OTTAWA — Barely a couple of weeks into the job, Rafael Barak, Israel’s new ambassador to Canada, already has a to-do list that will take full advantage of a bilateral relationship that’s never been more friendly.
The 63-year-old diplomat said in a Dec. 12 interview at the Israeli Embassy that he was greatly looking forward to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic visit to Israel next month – which Barak will be a part of.
The trip, he indicated, will almost certainly result in bilateral agreements, one of which will tap into Canada’s expertise on natural gas.
Eighteen years ago, Israel discovered it had natural gas deposits off the Mediterranean, but the amount is much greater than first thought, and Israel wants to take full advantage of it, with Canada’s help.
“Israel may be the land of milk and honey, but outside, we discovered gas, and we have to learn what to do with that gas,” Barak told The CJN. “Canada is a good example for our scientists, our engineers, our regulators – for all who are part of the project.
“We would also like to see more Canadian investors in this field, so gas energy will be a very high priority.”
Barak – whom family and friends call Rafi – has hit the ground running since arriving in Canada on Nov. 24 to succeed Miriam Ziv.
Almost right off the plane, he handled a conference call on Iran, received his diplomatic credentials from Gov. Gen. David Johnston, attended the Jewish National Fund’s Negev Dinner in Toronto honouring Harper, and looked for Canadian winter coats for himself and his wife, Miriam.
This is the first ambassadorship for the Uruguayan-born Barak, who speaks several languages fluently, comes across as genial and informal to a fault, and has worked for Israel’s Foreign Ministry for 37 years.
His career has included senior postings in cities as disparate as Lima, Paris, Brussels and Washington, D.C. His position before coming to Canada was as deputy minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Barak was also an important figure in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
An ardent Zionist his entire life, Barak made aliyah on his own at age 18 and joined the ministry at age 26 after working as a tourist guide when he was a student – he earned an MA in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
More than once during his diplomatic career, Barak was the “No. 2” man at an embassy, “doing everything the ambassador doesn’t want to do,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s a profession where you learn through your own experience… on-the-job training.”
The hardest part of the job? “Having limited time and plenty of things to do,” Barak answered immediately.
In Washington between 2000 and 2005, Barak, as the No. 2 man, was at the heart of the embassy action, in a period that included 9/11 and the second intifadah.
“[Then-]prime minister [Ariel] Sharon came to visit us eight times during my term, and all eight times, he had to cut his visit short because of some kind of attack that made him go back to Israel,” Barak recalled.
He also remembered that during his posting there, he and his wife got to visit Canada to see some of the tourist sites.
“This is part of the excitement of starting something new,” Barak said about being an ambassador now. “Each and every time, you have to prove yourself again. I start from scratch, and at the end, I know exactly if I did it very well and what the accomplishments were.”
Barak plans to make full use of the fact that Canada is one of Israel’s staunchest allies. He wants to see trade expand considerably from today’s level of $1.3 billion, improve on the Free Trade Agreement signed in 1996, and work more collaboratively on innovation and security issues, as well as on scientific research, Internet technology and biotechnology.
“Hopefully, [these] will be announced during the visit of Mr. Harper,” Barak said.
On the peace process, Barak was encouraged that negotiations are still going on, and while everything is open for discussion, “at the end of the day, this will be a political decision.”
He said any deal has to include recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state… because that is what we are.”
Even if the basic issues have not changed over the last decades, “like an old marriage with no new surprises… that does not imply that there are not difficult choices.”
Barak said Israel is grateful for Canada’s skepticism over the recent interim agreement with Iran on nuclear arms development.
“We are skeptical because, over the years, Iran has not stopped their intentions of having a nuclear weapon,” Barak said.
Despite Iran’s “charm offensive” under President Hassan Rouhani, the “same ayatollahs” are running the show, and, by not going along with deal, Canada is showing its ability to not do the “politically correct” thing.
Canada understands that “what is right is right,” Barak said.
Barak said he plans to meet with Jewish Canadians coast to coast, work “hand-in-hand” with them and celebrate the “rich Jewish life of this country.”
He will also thank them for their wide co-operation with many institutions in Israel.
“If you go from north to south in Israel, there’s not one place where I don’t see a Canadian flag.”