John Baird is a big, friendly,
open-faced, square-jawed man, who says things like “We’ve got to stand for what
is right,” and “We don’t go along to get along,” and “Sometimes you’ve got to take
a principled stand, even if it doesn’t make you popular,” and, of the Iranian
leadership, “These people don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.”
These are the kinds of aphorisms leaders of raw integrity
might have delivered in less morally compromised times, which may not actually
have ever existed. They are the unclouded philosophies of ultra-decent James
Stewart movie types, or of fictional superhero fighters-for-justice, to be
unleashed as villains are dispatched to the scrapheap in adventure films or on
the pages of comic books.
They are not the kinds of things that
Western foreign ministers tend to say in the early, hesitant years of the 21st
century. Indeed, it’s reasonable to assume, they are not the kinds of things
that Western foreign ministers, in the morally subverted world of realpolitik,
are even capable of thinking.
But Baird is not your average Western foreign minister.
And when it comes to foreign affairs, the Canadian government of Stephen Harper
in which he serves is not your average Western government.
The clearest recent expression of its atypical nature?
While most every country on earth, including the supposedly responsible,
relatively decent Western European nations, either supported Mahmoud Abbas or
abstained in last November’s UN General Assembly vote upgrading the
Palestinians to nonmember state, Canada stood alongside only the US, Panama,
the Czech Republic and four tiny Pacific Islands in voting with Israel against
Abbas’s bid to attain sovereign recognition without the discomfort of
negotiating Palestine’s modalities with Israel.
“Maybe people try to be pragmatic or, in the conduct of
international affairs, worship at the altar of compromise or consensus,” Baird
offered The Times of Israel by way of explanation. “I am more of a conviction
politician, like Stephen Harper.”
The uncomplicated moral approach should not be mistaken
for over-simplicity, however, or for an unsubtle reliance on guts and gung-ho
fervor. In a lengthy interview with The Times of Israel during his visit to the
region last week (he also went to Jordan and the Palestinian territories),
Baird, 46, rejected the notion of easy fixes for Syria, even as he lamented the
suffering of the Syrian people. He steered clear of prescriptions for
Israeli-Palestinian progress, too, while urging the two sides to stop the
“pettiness” and get down to negotiations.
But in many areas where his foreign minister
counterparts tread warily or hedge, Baird spoke with a rare clarity. And he was
unsparing, too, in addressing other states’ lapsed judgments, most notably when
it comes to the international community’s attitudes to Israel.
Times of Israel: I want to understand, first of all, why Canada is so strongly
supportive of Israel. And more than that, when it seems so obvious to Israelis
and apparently to you that Israel has shared values with the West, is subject
to double standards on some of its policies, is uniquely stable and democratic
in this part of the world, why is it that so many other countries aren’t where
Canada is on Israel?
Baird: First and foremost, my grandfather fought in the Second World
War … [and faced] the great struggles of his generation: fascism, communism.
[In] the great struggle of our generation, international terrorism, far too
often, the State of Israel and the Jewish people are on the front lines of that
struggle. That is a global struggle and there is no room for moral relativism.
We’ve got to stand for what is right, and against what is wrong.
In Israel we have a stable, liberal democracy with all
kinds of warts, just like Canada and just like the United States. But I think
most people — freedom-loving people anywhere in the world — would welcome it,
warts and all.
I think we’ve seen what happens when the Jewish people
don’t have a state. After the Holocaust, a Jewish state is so tremendously
You know, I was here a few years ago. I was with a
friend. We were going through the Old City. He recognized the son of a family
friend. The guy was 28 or 30. He was doing his two years of service in the IDF.
He’s French. I said, “You’re 28, why are you doing your service in the
IDF?” He said, “Oh we made aliyah later in life.”
After we left my friend told me that this man and his
parents moved here because he got the snot kicked out of him once or twice —
hate crimes — in France. To think that in the heart of Europe, that sort of
stuff still happens. Stunning, absolutely stunning.
That’s why it’s so tremendously important to have a
Jewish state. I do find that in the international institutions – when you find
sometimes 25 percent of the resolutions are against Israel, it’s just totally
disproportionate. And a total pile-on.
And under Stephen Harper, we don’t go along to get
along. It’s a lot easier to shut up and to go with the crowd, but sometimes
you’ve got to take a principled stand, even if it doesn’t make you popular.
And I should say two things. One is that in Canada, one
percent of the population is Jewish, 3.6 percent is Muslim or Arab. My own
constituency, I have 2,800 Jews, with 11,500 Muslims or Arabs, and we have
strict campaign finances: 1,200 dollars [maximum donation], that’s it. So we
don’t have big money involved. We do it out of moral conviction. I think we
should stand up for what is right.
of which you state as the blindingly obvious. And it seems to many Israelis to
be blindingly obvious. And yet what ought to be consensual and obvious
positions are atypical to the extent that in the vote in the UN last year on
Palestinian statehood, it was Israel, Canada and seven others, four of whom
you’d struggle to find on the map, who voted against the Palestinians’ upgraded
status. Your position is not one of global consensus at all. It is an
aberration. It marks you along with Israel on the margins of international
consensus. Why is that? The Organization of Islamic States, the non-aligned
nations, it’s not hard to understand where their instinctive positions are. But
the supposed barometer, responsible states – the Western European states – in
that resolution, for example, they abstained or voted for the Palestinian
upgrade. Why is it that they don’t see it in the obvious way that you see it?
There’s a natural tendency to support what they see as
the underdog, moral relativism.
does that mean?
Moral relativism is, “Well, I know that these people
were terrorists, but they were marginalized and in a difficult place and you’ve
got to understand where they come from, and it’s difficult, and if only people
treated them nicer” — that sort of thought.
I strongly support a two-state solution. I was in
Ramallah yesterday with the Palestinian prime minister and President Abbas. I
think we have a good relationship. With that, we have honest differences of
opinion and I don’t mind speaking out publicly or privately about what my views
are. I think that sometimes, for various reasons, our prime minister has a lot
of moral courage. And we’re very like-minded in terms of our positions.
come from Britain, as you may have gathered from my accent, although a long
time ago. In Britain, there are many more Muslims than Jews. The most popular
boy’s name for years now is Mohammed. In France, there are ten times as many
Muslims as Jews. Is it political pragmatism [that shapes their policies]? The
demographics of some of these countries?
followed Tony Blair closely when he was prime minister. One of the reasons that
he began to lose popularity was his perceived irrational support for Israel and
his sensible position about the nature of terrorism. In parts of western Europe,
including Britain, there seems to be this disinclination to believe that you
have an Islamist, extremist threat to your country.
Maybe people try to be pragmatic or, in the conduct of
international affairs, worship at the altar of compromise or consensus. I’m not
totally unpragmatic but I am more of a conviction politician, like Stephen
was in Jordan two and a half weeks ago for a World Economic Forum gathering. I
got the sense that they’re seeing all sorts of chaos unfolding around them, and
there’s a certain caution about being too revolutionary in Jordan. I found it
to be relatively stable. Was that your sense as well?
We have a very close relationship with Jordan and with
His Majesty’s government. We have provided just now a hundred million dollars
for development — a big chunk of which was to support Jordan in dealing with
I am always worried about the stability of like-minded
friends and allies. I think His Majesty has had a difficult challenge in how do
you balance off civil society, and prosperity, and the needs of a country, with
the honorable aspirations of reformers. I think he’s accelerated some of the
things that he was already doing, but it’s a tough balancing act. I said about
Libya and Gaddafi’s decline: You don’t go from Gaddafi to Thomas Jefferson
overnight. And I think you’ve got to recognize that [fact] if you go from a
civil society, which is an honorable, aspirational goal, on the way to what we
would see as more of a concept of democracy.
Freedom is the end goal. Democracy is one of the means
to freedom. Obviously Jordan is a peace-loving society, dealing with a lot of
big challenges. The fifth-largest city in Jordan now is a refugee camp. Twelve
percent of the population are Syrian refugees and the fact is that they have
been so decent and giving, to welcome these people in. They have buses to go to
the border and transport these people, so they’ve been very generous. And we
should be very, very mindful that this is a struggle over basic things like
water and education, employment.
has produced some surreal situations here. We had a story last week on our
website about this four-year old Syrian girl who came from Jordan for
life-saving surgery here — from a Jordan refugee camp to
a hospital in Israel. We had a guy in the hospital last week who came with a note from his doctor in Syria – they found a note on his
person – saying “Here’s how we tried to treat him, maybe you can do more,
because we really haven’t got the capacity.” There’s extraordinary stuff going
on as a consequence of the Syrian civil war.
It is. How someone who has ruled over his people, whose
family has ruled for all these years, could watch the devastation and the
suffering of these people, and could allow this to go on.
hasn’t the West failed as a moral actor here in allowing this to continue?
If there is an easy solution to this, we haven’t found
it. I suspect that there are a lot of good minds on it.
My colleagues and I in the West, my counterparts in the
West — this does haunt us, finding the solution. What worked in Libya doesn’t
necessarily work in Syria… I was recently in Baghdad, the security situation,
the sectarian violence there, the influence of Iran, is deeply concerning as
well. There’s no easy solution, there’s no one-size-fits all solution.
Obviously, my conclusion is that there’s only one way to
end the suffering of the Syrian people, and that’s through a political
solution. But if one side gets the upper hand, they’re less open to that. The
real fear is sectarian violence – the minorities there, whether they be
Palestinians, Druze, Alawites, Kurds, Christians – the real fear is that
there’ll be a slaughter, a slaughter of those special sects.
do you make of the new Iranian president? We have our typical Israeli range of
responses – President Peres talking about, well, maybe this is a little bit
encouraging, and Prime Minister Netanyahu saying, don’t be fooled. This guy
doesn’t set policy and he’s not exactly a reformist either. On the other hand,
he was the candidate that the reformists backed, so perhaps that says something
about the Iranian public? What’s your sense?
You know, I’m not a pessimist and not an optimist. I’m a
realist. The nuclear program, which is the chief of the big concerns we have
with the regime in Tehran, is not controlled by the prime minister. It’s
controlled by the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] and those around him. Only a
select six of several hundred people were even allowed to contest the
presidential election, so this is by no means a free and fair election. And if
he [incoming president Hasan Rouhani] wants me to say something kind or
generous, he’s going to have to solicit that by his actions, not by any
perceived notion of him being a reformer. These people don’t deserve the
benefit of the doubt.
we at the end in terms of diplomacy [on Iran's nuclear program]?
There’s always a reason to wait another two or three
now, when they may be less than two or three months from…?
If they want to prove the naysayers wrong, they can make
meaningful progress with the P5+1. I’m pessimistic on that but I hope to be
you’d give it another two or three months?
We waited two or three months during this election
period since the last meetings chaired by Catharine Ashton. A peacemaker —
there’s no more noble action in the world. I hope they can make progress, but this
process is nearing the end, and should have been nearing the end in my
judgment. If Iran wants to seek out concrete, meaningful solutions to this,
they have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world in the coming weeks that
they’ll do that…
if they don’t…
And you have someone [in Rouhani, a former Iranian
nuclear negotiator] who doesn’t need to have any time to read up on the files.
This person does not need anytime to be briefed up.
if at the end of two or three months there isn’t some kind of concrete
I think fair and reasonable people will have shown that
they have taken every reasonable measure, every diplomatic measure, to try to
successfully bring this to a conclusion.
of intervention. And then comes the time for intervention?
I’ll just leave it at that.
were with Abbas [in Ramallah the day before]. I’m sure you had a frank exchange
of views. How do you see the effort to resume talks playing out?
There was the prime minister, and [PA Foreign Minister] Mr.
Al-Malki, who I got to know well and have a good relationship with. And we had
my fourth or fifth meeting with President Abbas and it was good and
constructive. I found him in a good mood, you know.
He didn’t say to you, Why are you so gung-ho, pro-Israel?
You know, listen, I respect his right to have his
position and I think he respects Canada’s right to have their position. We
engage with the Palestinians, we work with the Palestinians, we’ve been a major
development partner with the Palestinians, also with the United States in
Operation Proteus on security and justice development and reform, humanitarian
assistance. We announced 25 million dollars in humanitarian aid. We discussed
security stuff with them yesterday.
I found [Abbas] in a better mood than he has been. He
seems incredibly engaged with John Kerry’s mission. I encouraged him, as I will
with my Israel interlocutors. I’m not one who believes that this is the last
chance for peace and the last chance for a two-state solution, but I think it’s
the best chance and it’s right on our doorstep and both sides should take
advantage of this American leadership. John Kerry, from his first day in
office, has jumped head first into this. I think his is an extraordinary effort
that deserves and merits full support.
I did find in my last meeting here with Prime Minister
Netanyahu that he was and that his government was incredibly engaged. His
comments on forming a new government after the elections were warm and
generous. His appointment of Tzipi Livni [to oversee peace efforts with the
Palestinians] is, I think, an olive branch, and we hope to see the Palestinians
make a similar [move, and] come to this discussion with a similar approach.
meeting [in April] with Livni in [her Justice Ministry office in] East
Jerusalem became controversial. Is Canada setting down some kind of a marker
about East Jerusalem or was it just a convenient place to meet the minister?
Listen, I’m a visiting minister. I met with all four or
five of the leaders of the coalition. I met with her in her office – it was
coffee, and nothing more. I’ll go with any peace-loving person who wants to
talk about peace, I’ll meet them anywhere to discuss that. I think we’ve got to
move beyond these petty issues.
A minister in the previous Canadian government that we
replaced, our minister of justice, had met with the [Israeli] minister of
justice [in the same ministry building] and despite the media in Canada knowing
that, they didn’t report it. Our position on that issue is unchanged.
As long as we’re debating a Canadian minister having
coffee on this side of the street or that side of the street, as long as we’re debating
why Israel can or cannot give treatments to cure the cancer of a dying
Palestinian terrorist, as long as we’re debating these types of things, we’re
not going to move forward. And we’ve got to stop this pettiness, in my
judgment. On both sides.
from Abbas, you sensed a certain…
This was my third visit to Ramallah. The most negative
person on Canada’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority once again was
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, by far. At a factor of a hundred times
more negative than the Palestinians. Even though the two of them there [from
the CBC] I had helped get out of jail in Turkey three days ago.
If anything, I think our relationship with the
Palestinian Authority, certainly in the last seven years, has been at a high
point, with honest differences of opinion. There’s nothing wrong with that. We
have honest differences of opinion with the United States on some issues.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a good
We strongly support, strongly support a two-state
solution. We want to see the Palestinians live in dignity, live in prosperity.
We want to see a Jewish state where people live in security. We want to see
that happen. This is the reason why this is one of most intractable problems in
the world today.
Jordan at the WEF event, Abbas made a speech that basically expressed
bafflement with Israel: Why wouldn’t you pull out of the West Bank and trust
us? We would never harm you, and so on. It seemed to be disingenuous, as did
the appeal to the UN and the refusal to engage directly.
My view is the most fundamental foundation for
constructive dialogue and peace is you’ve got to stop this hyperbole and this
rhetoric on both sides.
I felt Abbas yesterday to be very engaged, in a good
mood, better than I’ve seen him in recent times. He brought out a cake for
my assistant Oren’s 30th birthday. He brought out a cake, sang happy birthday
to him. Oren was born in Eilat. [We went] from coffee in East Jerusalem to cake