Alan Baker, LEFT, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, is looking at his last few months in Ottawa with satisfaction tinged with some regret.
Satisfaction that the relationship between the two countries is as good
as it’s been in quite some time; regret that 10 years after Israel and
Canada inked a free trade agreement, two-way trade remains stuck at the
$1-billion mark.Nevertheless, for Baker, the glass is a lot more than
half full. “The Canada-Israel relationship is improving every week,” he
said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.
At the ministerial level, Canadian and Israeli lawmakers have good personal and working relationships. The countries’ prime ministers, Stephen Harper and Ehud Olmert, “speak regularly on the phone,” while their foreign ministers, Maxime Bernier and Tzipi Livni, are also in frequent contact. John Baird, Canada’s environment minister, is slated to travel to Israel where he will meet his counterpart at an environmental conference, while Stockwell Day, Canada’s minister of public safety, recently attended a conference in Israel and met with Avi Dichter, his Israeli counterpart.
Throw in the bilateral agreements between the two countries’ police forces in the areas of drug smuggling and anti-terrorism, and for Baker, all in all, it’s been a pretty good year.
“I like to think it’s because of the ambassador, but realistically, it’s a mixture of everything,” he said. “The present Canadian government is very supportive of Israel… There are ongoing bilateral developments and they are much better than it has been in years. Harper is a leading influence in his attitude to Israel, but it’s also due to a commonality and mutuality of interests.”
Canada’s potential assistance in peace talks is valued, Baker said, given its reputation in the international community, as is its assistance to the Palestinian Authority in training police.
Canada’s experience in making multiculturalism work can also serve as a model in the region. “Canada can help bring the Palestinians from a psyche of terror to one of living together,” Baker added.
At the United Nations and its Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Canada has built upon a speech given by former UN ambassador Alan Rock in which he criticized divisive resolutions that did not advance peace.
At the UNHRC, “Canada has opposed one-sided resolutions” and the attempt by “Muslim states to hijack the agenda,” Baker said.
He applauded Canada for withdrawing from Durban II, the follow-up to the notorious UN World Conference Against Racism in 2001 that critics said turned into an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist event.
Despite those positive developments, Baker said, work remains to be done. “The bilateral commercial relationship is still disappointing to me.”
Ten years ago, the two countries signed a free trade agreement, but he believes that it’s been underutilized.
Concerns over security may have been a factor in limiting Canadian interest seven or eight years ago, but that shouldn’t be a factor now, Baker said.
Israel is a “superpower” in high tech, with leading developments in the medical, agricultural and computer fields, and the chip inside the Blackberry was developed in Israel, he added.
Baker was hopeful the recently reconstituted Canada Israel Chamber of Commerce would boost trade between the countries.
If so, it will have to overcome some negative reporting by Canada’s media, he said.
Correspondents in Israel inject negative elements into positive stories, and “I spend a lot of time trying to correct reports from Canadian correspondents in Israel to put things in a more proportional way,” he added.
Baker issued a warning to the Jewish community to focus its resources on supporting students on campus, who he said are “on the front lines” of anti-Israel agitation. “There’s a well-oiled, well-financed campaign” to vilify Israel, he added.
Another source of concern was hostility by organized labour toward the Jewish state, as demonstrated by anti-Israel resolutions adopted by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and CUPE Ontario.
Ironically, at the same time, Baker said his relationship with Arab and Muslim ambassadors posted in Ottawa seems to have improved.
Envoys from Jordan, Egypt and Albania attended the embassy’s Independence Day party, and he has developed good relationships with ambassadors representing countries that don’t even have diplomatic relationships with Israel.
Of course, the Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian ambassadors will have nothing to do with him, but Baker said he’s on good terms with colleagues from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen.
As Baker winds up his four-year tour of duty in Ottawa, he’s happy he’s been able to tour Canada and meet people from some of its smaller communities.
“It’s been a huge privilege and honour to represent Israel in a country like Canada,” he said.