Israeli envoy reflects on special ties with Canada
Israeli ambassador to Canada Miriam Ziv returned to Israel just before Labour Day after a five-year term – one year longer than usual – satisfied that Canada and Israel’s bilateral relationship has never been stronger or warmer.
In a farewell interview, the petite Ziv – a native of Hadera who just turned 65 and, in 1974, served her first diplomatic posting as vice-consul at the Israeli Consulate in Toronto – underscored the special nature of the Canada-Israel bond and the unprecedented level of bilateral co-operation that was nurtured during her stay. Ziv was also the first non-Canadian to be named last February to the annual “Power 25” list in Maclean’s magazine, which dubbed her the “dogged envoy.”
She spoke to The CJN at the Israeli embassy one week before leaving Canada.
Canadian Jewish News: What are your general impressions of the five years that you served in Canada?
Miriam Ziv: It’s been a very special five years for me. I came back [for my second posting] during a special period in the relationship between Israel and Canada.
The two countries are maintaining an outstanding relationship, and the Canadian government has been very supportive and understanding of Israel and its needs. That allowed me, as ambassador, to enjoy the relationship and work on it, to create links between Canadians and Israelis that go beyond government relations. I feel that, thanks to a friendly government and the close ties that we are maintaining, we have managed to bring our relationship to a higher level.
That friendship also created links between universities, researchers and people. I put a lot of time into trying to make use of Israel as a startup nation. Canadians have the United States next door, and for Israelis, Europe is closer and Canada is part of North America. But thanks to the Canadian government’s relationship with Israel, everybody [in Israel] knows about Canada.
CJN: Why do you think this Conservative government has been perceived as unusually supportive of Israel?
Ziv: I think it’s the Conservative government’s understanding of Israel’s position as the only democracy in a non-democratic and very hostile neighbourhood, and of our right to exist in security and our shared values in human rights. There has always been a good relationship between the two governments throughout the years.
Historically, Canada was there when Israel was established. But this government, more than any other, has expressed this support not only in words but in deeds. Canada’s (voting record) at the UN changed during this government’s tenure. But the relationship is really based on the shared values, and I felt my job was to bring these shared values further ahead and create shared interests and strategic interests.
CJN: Critics, though, have countered that Canada has been moving away from its traditional “honest broker” role vis-à-vis Israel.
Ziv: Statements [like that] are easy to make, and it’s also difficult to define what is meant by “honest broker.” Canada’s voice is heard everywhere. If we take the G8 summit of two years ago [involving the eight countries of the world’s 11 largest economies], Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper insisted on changing the wording of a statement that was coming out on the Middle East… [The change] was accepted by all his colleagues at the G8. So, as an onlooker, I don’t see where this “honest broker moving-away” idea is coming from.
You look at the connections, the visits that Canada has made, such as the one Foreign Minister [John] Baird made in April after going to five Arab countries. It’s not my role to defend the Canadian government. I’m just explaining where this notion of “honest broker” comes from. Canada has a principled position, and… [it’s] very clear.
CJN: How do you feel about retuning home now at this juncture in you life?
Ziv: I admit that I’m glad to go home because it is home. I have gone back a number of times during my term because the children are there, family is there, one of our sons is getting married, so we’re going back. I do have some mixed feelings. I enjoyed very much my stay here. We have some very good and close friends who will stay on as personal friends when we’re back.
CJN: What kind of bilateral agreements came about between Canada and Israel during your term here?
Ziv: The specific agreements a set on defence co-operation, which included an umbrella agreement as well as specific agreements on different areas like procurement, research and development. Basically, our interest was to work together with the Canadian defence establishment and do things together using both our strengths.
We had an agreement signed with our Israeli version of CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] – MASHAV – in which we are going to build a program of collaboration in Third World countries in common areas of interest. We had an agreement signed between the Royal Society of Canada’s sciences academy on collaboration… and an agreement was signed recently between the AUCC [the Association of University’s and Colleges of Canada] and its counterpart in Israel.
Several other agreements are in the making, including the upgrading of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
We also came up with a joint program between the NRC [National Research Council] and Israel’s chief scientists and Ministry of Industry and Trade. It was born when Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu was here in 2010… In it, small and medium-sized companies collaborate in joint research and commercialization endeavours.
Others are in the works and it’s an ongoing process. The main purpose is for Canada and Israel to know each other more, to be exposed to each other more.
I also put in a lot of time – along with our consulates – into engaging with the provinces. Over the last few years, [former] Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty visited Israel, Premier Darrel Dexter of Nova Scotia visited Israel, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger visited Israel…
CJN: You also made it a point to travel as much as possible in Canada.
Ziv: Yes, I did. It’s not an easy thing, because Canada is so big. The only province I did not visit was Newfoundland… I visited all the capitals and met with the premiers except for Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, where I met with dignitaries but not the premiers, for different reasons.
I also met with the communities. I thought engaging with the smaller communities was even more important than meeting with the bigger ones, since we have consulates in the bigger cities. I also went to Vancouver, Victoria, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Winnipeg.
CJN: How would you characterize your meeting with the different Canadian-Jewish communities?
Ziv: It was interesting to see the different dynamics. Some of them are very small but very much engaged and devoted, very much connected to the government and political scene while having relations with Israel.
CJN: Is there something stands out as a particular highlight for you in the last five years?
Ziv: The highlight that I would point to is the  visit of Shimon Peres to Canada. We also had Prime Minister Netanyahu visit twice, but with Shimon Peres, it was not only the president of Israel visiting, but Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, visiting. It was memorable visit. You know, I still talk to people here and they still remember his speech.
CJN: Besides Peres, what were some of the other highlights?
Ziv: I don’t really see them as highlights. I [develop] contacts and relationships that need to be cultivated because things don’t happen on this day or that day… I tried to engage people at various levels – in universities and granting councils, researchers, provincial leaders – and be true to what I represent, the State of Israel. I saw myself as the ambassador in that sense: bringing Israel to a distant country, a country where the friendship is very important, where Canada is a special partner, not in size or population, but definitely a partner in terms of common values and interests.
CJN: Did you ever imagine when growing up in Hadera, that you would come to be Israel’s chief envoy to another nation?
Ziv: It’s not really the way I would put it. I’m an Israeli. I was born in Hadera because this is where my parents were when I was born. I joined the foreign service on my own because I wanted to become a diplomat. The raison d’être of a diplomat is to represent your country, and in the case of Israel, there is more to it than that. Israel is different in many ways. The State of Israel for us is a mission, a mission of representing, of helping, of enhancing Israel’s position in the world. As ambassador here I had an opportunity to do this. When you join the foreign service, this is what you want to do.
CJN: How do you think Israel’s image has been affected by what is going on now in Syria and Egypt? Has the focus of the world’s attention shifted?
Ziv: The focus never shifts from Israel altogether. The peace process and political issues continue, so countries are still following Israel, but definitely the shift in the world and in the Middle East is proof of things we have been saying all the time. You always hear that if only the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was resolved, the Middle East would look different. The Middle East is what it is, and it’s not the peace process or Israel and the Palestinians that will be resolving it.
But it’s important to say that it’s very important for us to resolve that issue – [find] a two-state solution. We hope very much that our Palestinian interlocutors are serious and sincere in their negotiations and that we will be able to come to a settlement and have a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living one next to the other in peace and security.
CJN: What are your plans after you return to Israel?
Ziv: I will be retiring in two years, because it’s mandatory in the civil service at age 67. So I will be going back and be making some decisions on what is next, but the memories of Canada will always stay.
CJN: Do you wish retirement were not mandatory at 67?
Ziv: I wish it wasn’t. I’m still full of energy – absolutely. But I will not forget the Canada-Israel relationship. John Baird and others know that I will still be in Israel doing things to promote Canada-Israel relations… The Jewish community here is devoted and dedicated to Israel. CIJA [Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs] has been a partner in working together with the government. Remember, the friendship that exists now with the government of Canada was not born with my arrival here. Diplomats are transient: we come and go, but we have the ground laid that allows us to work on it. The basis was there, we didn’t have to invent it.