Canada’s Foreign Minister Explains Why His Country is so Supportive of Israel

FM John Baird Explains Canadian Support of Israel

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    Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird explains why his country is so supportive of Israel, and why others aren’t.

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    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.

    The 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?

    John 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 important.

    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.

    All 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.

    What 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.

    I 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?

    Absolutely.

    I 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 Harper.

    I 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 the refugees.

    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.

    Syria 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.

    And 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.

    What 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.

    Are we at the end in terms of diplomacy [on Iran's nuclear program]?

    There’s always a reason to wait another two or three months.

    Even 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 proven wrong.

    But 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…

    And 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.

    And if at the end of two or three months there isn’t some kind of concrete evidence…?

    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.

    Short of intervention. And then comes the time for intervention?

    I’ll just leave it at that.

    You 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.

    Your 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.

    And 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 relationship.

    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.

    In 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 in Ramallah.

     
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