In January 2014, then-foreign affairs minister John Baird surprised many when he named Vivian Bercovici as Canada’s ambassador to Israel. A Toronto lawyer with no diplomatic background or foreign service experience, Bercovici had expressed strong support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and was critical of Palestinian leadership and the United Nations – positions she expressed in her monthly Toronto Star columns on the Middle East.
The appointment was viewed in some circles as squaring with the Conservative government’s well-established support for Israel.
Bercovici was in Toronto last month to help lay the groundwork for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s forthcoming economic mission to Israel. The ambassador also addressed members of the Empire Club on Canada’s need to catch up with other countries in cashing in on Israel’s high-tech revolution.
The CJN interviewed Bercovici by telephone. As requested by her and her staff, most of the questions were submitted in advance.
Is the job what you expected it to be? Any bumps along the road?
Because of the nature of the way in which I was appointed, it wasn’t a clear path. I didn’t really have a lot of time to consider expectations, although when I was appointed, I had some. But no huge surprises. I’m accustomed to operating and functioning at a pretty high-stress environment where things change a lot and you really have to think on your feet.
I’ve been a litigator. I’ve been a corporate lawyer, and you are always responding to changing circumstances and have to react fast. And that’s what this job is all about. It’s about using social skills, negotiating skills, assessing situations. You need to be a reasonably quick study and it’s a highly complex environment. But it’s the kind of environment I thrive on. There are always little things that surprise you, but nothing terribly shocking.
After your appointment, there were some who took you to task for being a little pro-Likud.
I’m not partisan. Never have been. People choose to read into things I’ve said or written. There has been a lot of absolute fiction attributed to me, and I have no idea where that comes from. I’m not pro-Likud. I’m there as a public servant to represent the government of Canada. In terms of any views I may have held prior to my appointment, I think people project onto me what they feel I should be or what they need me to be. Many of the things said about me bear no resemblance to reality.
If anyone reads the actual Toronto Star columns, they would be hard-pressed to find a consistent partisan view. Since that time, people have chosen to attribute certain views to me that I absolutely never expressed. I very consciously steered away from certain topics.
Given the previous government’s popularity in Israel, its staunch support for Israel, has Canada’s change in government registered in Israel, and if so, how?
Absolutely the change has registered. Canada is such an important country for Israel because of the long-standing support, so the election was watched very closely, as was the campaign. The government in Israel was very pleased with the previous government. They’re very pleased with the current government. The Trudeau government continues to express very strong support for Israel, on a bilateral basis and in international forums.
Canada has been perceived in Israel stereotypically as a cold, empty place. Has that changed, and what does Israel expect of Canada?
There’s much more awareness and knowledge in Israel of America than Canada. That’s just the way it is, because there’s such strong ties between America and Israel. As much as the Jewish community of Canada feels close to Israel, I think Israel feels a kinship with the community in Canada. But when it comes to Canada as a whole, they always ask questions about it: “It’s big, it has beautiful nature… a big country with a lot of different times zones and climate regions.” And too often Israelis are under the impression that most people in Canada speak French. But there’s also not as much general knowledge, frankly, among Canadians about Israel.
Canada was involved in multilateral peace talks arising from the 1991 Madrid process. Is there an expectation in Israel that Canada should become involved again?
That would be utter speculation for me, and I’m not going to do it. The environment is very, very fluid right now, and I think Israeli leaders are focused on the November elections in America. Whether there’s any formulated expectations with respect to a Canadian role would be absolutely conjecture on my part.
You mentioned in your address to the Empire Club that Canada is lagging in high-tech investments in and partnerships with Israel, and that “most other countries are way ahead of us.” Why do you think this has happened and how can Canada fix it?
In Toronto and Ottawa, I talked to all kinds of people about how we need a bit of a boost, a kick-start to tech innovation and capabilities in Canada, particularly Ontario. Those are significant issues to be made by others. So I wouldn’t want to jump ahead of them and be presumptuous. We’re a big country and have tremendous assets and strengths that can be deployed for this sort of issue.
Do you have any advice for Premier Wynne in advance of her mission to Israel?
I would never presume to give advice to the premier, but what I would suggest is that she come, as I know she will, full of energy, an open mind and be prepared to be dazzled by the creativity, innovation in Israel, and to be inspired by it… and to be mindful of how we can adapt it to be successful in our environment.
Any thoughts on the recent appointment of Canadian law professor Michael Lynk as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Palestine?
I have nothing to add to what the minister of foreign affairs said.
There has been speculation (in Embassy magazine and iPolitics) that you will soon be replaced. Any comment?
I go and I do my job with gusto and every ounce of energy I have every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.