Canada’s foreign affairs minister was talking through his hat recently in Israel. John Baird was on a state visit and repeated at every opportunity that, “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.” Then he would recount his story about how, as a young Parliamentary assistant working in the office of the Conservative foreign affairs minister in the 1990s, he could not stay quiet during the daily briefings about Israel. “I took a pad of paper and drew a white hat on one side and a black hat on the other. Under the white hat, I wrote ‘Israel’ and under the black, ‘Hezbollah.’” This recreated story, like much of what Minister Baird says, smacks of theatre but lacks the ring of authenticity. But obviously he believes it will play well back at home, where he hopes that the Harper government will be able to rewrite the traditional playbook on Canada’s role as an honest broker in Middle East diplomacy.
Baird and ultra-orthodox rabbi
Baird was accompanied everywhere in Israel by an Ottawa-based ultra-orthodox rabbi. Many Israelis are uncomfortable with that group but Minister Baird described the rabbi at every stop as his “teacher.” Baird refused, when asked by journalists, to make any criticism of Israel’s deliberate building of settlements in Palestine lands under its military occupation. These settlements are widely considered to be illegal under international law. In contrast, when Baird met with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, he lectured him about the folly of his going to the Untied Nations last year in a bid to have Palestinians recognized as a state. Baird told Abbas that Palestinians should get back to the table, without preconditions, to negotiate a two-state arrangement with Israel.
Jeffrey Simpson a Globe and Mail columnist described Baird’s uncouth diplomacy with Abbas in these words: “The Harper government insists that it favours a two-state solution, but everyone knows it will do or say nothing to nudge Israel in that direction, or to chastise Israel for doing next to nothing to move in that direction.”
Lone Ranger rides again
White hats and black hats. Democrats and terrorists. It is a deliberately simplistic argument that insults adult intelligence. It takes one back to the Lone Ranger and good guy-bad guy cowboy movies of the 1950s. This approach consciously avoids both current reality and history. As for the current reality, here is a quote from Gideon Levy, a journalist for the Israel newspaper Haaretz. He spoke in Ottawa in September 2010 and said: “I was brought up as a typical Israeli but in the late 1980s I started to travel to a place a half hour from my home, a trip that most Israelis never make. I started to go into the occupied territories, our own dark backyard … Israel holds 3.5 million Palestinians against their will in conditions that you cannot imagine and there is no way Israel will move without pressure or a push from the outside.”
What of history?
And what of history, much of it recent? The noted British writer William Dalrymple says that when the state of Israel was created in 1948, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) were driven from their homes and land, often with little or no notice. Most of these displaced people fled to other Middle Eastern countries, where their situation has often remained precarious. During the pre-emptive Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, an event that created even more refugees. These territories were placed under a military occupation that persists to this day, and which is considered by the United Nations to be illegal. As of January 2010, the United Nations cites 1.4 million registered refugees in camps and another 3.4 registered refugees not in camps. The Oslo Accords in 1993 set out a process and timetable for peace negotiations and Palestinian self-government, but such negotiations are rendered impossible by the relentless development of Israeli settlements on occupied land.
Baird and his government never acknowledge the inconvenient truth that it was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent displacement of existing inhabitants from their land and homes that led to the region’s enduring troubles. The Conservatives prefer to deal with all violence in the region as if it had sprung, mysteriously, from the foreheads of Arabs who are terrorists.
Obama and land swaps
President Barack Obama said in a speech in 2011 that the pre-1967 borders of Israel should form the basis of new peace negotiations. He said, as well, that Israel and the Palestinians would have to swap land to take into account the many West Bank settlements created by the Israelis since 1967. The Israeli government was not amused. In May 2011, Canada stood alone in opposition to a G8 communique that would have endorsed the U.S. pre-1967 proposal. Baird and his government wear Canada’s diplomatic isolation in that matter as a badge of pride, just as they do Canada’s defeat by Portugal for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010.
These ploys are wrong-headed and they also serve to isolate Canada diplomatically – but Baird and Prime Minister Harper are gambling that they will work to the Conservatives’ advantage in domestic politics. They believe that their ardently pro-Israel stand will finish the job of stripping the Liberals of their traditional support from Jewish voters. Many evangelical Christians, also an important part of the Conservative base, believe that in the Bible God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. Some of these Christians are also dispensationalists who believe that the creation of the state of Israel is a precursor to events leading up to the second coming of Christ.
At its best religious faith can inform politics; at its worst it can distort them. This is a case of the latter. But Baird is clear that he is not a religious person. For him, the white-hats, black-hats ploy is all about partisan advantage.