“More settler than the settlers”: Canada’s UN policy and Israel

Since Israel’s inception, Canada has been at the forefront in its unwavering support of the Jewish state.

Israel''s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits
In September, Binyamin Netanyahu said of Stephen Harper, "Same heart and same values" [EPA]

Even before Canada officially cast its “no” vote at the United Nations on Thursday, Palestinians knew which way the Canadian wind would blow. At the gates of Canada’s heavily guarded “embassy” in Ramallah the day before the vote, protesters carried signs of Prime Minister Stephen Harper emblazoned with a dogs snout and the dismissive slogan, “this dog doesn’t hunt”.

The next day in New York, Canada joined Israel, the US, the Czech Republic, Panama and four small countries in the Pacific Islands – including Nauru, population 10,000 –  in voting against a General Assembly resolution granting Palestinians Non-Member Observer State status. The final tally was 138 to 9 in favour.

Before the vote, analyst Mouin Rabbani aptly characterised the antagonists: “Those openly opposing this vote can easily be counted on the fingers of an amputated hand: Israel; the United States, which is more pro-Israel than Israel itself; Canada, which is more pro-Israel than even the United States.”

Indeed, the very next day Canada voted against six more resolutions on Palestinian rights that were adopted, including one on the “peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine” (163-6).

Canada opposing resolutions dealing with Palestinian rights is not new, nor is it the effect of a particular government or another. Opposing such resolutions has been a core Canadian diplomatic tactic since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 – by both Liberal and Conservative governments.

Fault Lines
Canada-Israel: The other special relationship

In the principal study of Canada’s role in the creation of the State of Israel, historian David Bercuson described diplomat Lester Pearson – who chaired the pivotal United Nations Special Committee on Palestine – as playing “a unique and crucial role at the UN… Partition might not have been adopted without Pearson’s efforts”.

In 1974, following Yasser Arafat’s landmark “the gun and the olive branch” speech at the UN, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau opposed a resolution adopted by the General Assembly granting Palestinians similar observer status under the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

More recently, the Liberal government in 2004 pointedly abstained from a resolution condemning Israel’s massive separation wall (150-6) despite acknowledging it violated international law.

While the voting pattern is not new, the Harper government has certainly cranked up the rhetoric, particularly under the current foreign minister, John Baird, who presents himself as far more of a sycophant than a statesman.

“One thing John Baird doesn’t do is diplomatic nuance,” said one Canadian political journal.

Baird describes his relationship with Israel as “kinship” and he hailed Israel as “breathtaking” and “simply a miracle to behold” at a speech to the Jewish National Fund on the sixth day of last month’s Gaza-Israel battle.

Earlier this year, the Jerusalem Post led its coverage of Baird’s visit to Israel with an anecdote from a magazine interview with the foreign minister. “If you weren’t in politics, what would you want to be doing?”

“Likely working on a kibbutz in Israel,” answered Baird.

The Post described Canada as “the gold standard” of support for Israel. “There is not a government on the planet today more supportive of Israel than Harper’s Canada.”

Baird repeats this phrase at every opportunity. “I think the US is a good friend, too. I like to think we are better – a stronger friend.”

During the visit, Israel Hayom, Israel’s largest circulation daily newspaper, said: “When he discusses the Palestinian issue, Baird sounds like he could have voted in this week’s Likud primaries.”

Likudniks agree. At a reception for Baird before departing Israel, Likud Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz mocked in jest, “I think Canada’s an even better friend of Israel than we are.”

Netanyahu singled out the prime minister at the UN in September. “Same heart and same values,” said Netanyahu of Harper.

After Thursday’s vote, Saeb Erekat, the most conciliatory of Palestinian politicians in regard to Israel, said Canada was being “more settler than the [Israeli] settlers”.

Canada’s diplomatic support for Israel is not limited to the United Nations. In September, Canada recalled its diplomats and shuttered its Tehran embassy, declaring it unsafe. The move prompted former CBC and AJE chief, Tony Burman, to quip: “Canada appears to have a new foreign minister. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu.”

But the implications of Canada’s disposition are potentially deeper than diplomatic verbiage. Classified defence department documents obtained by the Canadian Press detailed a 2011 visit to Israel during which Defence Minister Peter MacKay told Israeli army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, “a threat to Israel is a threat to Canada”.

The defence minister’s phrasing was a slightly toned down version of a provocative statement made earlier by former junior foreign affairs minister, Peter Kent, that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada”. The minister described the statement as a paraphrasing of the prime minister’s policy.

The consequences of the Harper government’s unconditional fawning of Israel have begun to surface. Perhaps most prominently, this one-sided approach played a central role in Canada being denied an elected seat on the United Nations Security Council – for the first time ever.

After 65 years of denying basic rights of the Palestinians, Israel’s isolation on the world stage is starker than ever. Both Harper and Baird have acknowledged such. The prime minister calls supporting Israel “a difficult position” internationally, while Baird describes the policy as “not an electoral winner” in Canada either.

Still, this government doesn’t seem to mind the consequences; on the contrary, they have doubled-down.

Jon Elmer is a Canadian journalist based in the Middle East since 2003, primarily in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jonelmer