TORONTO – Fears are rising among groups that lobby for the Palestinian cause that Canada might be abandoning its traditional middle-of-the-road position on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Ottawa could squander an opportunity to play a constructive role in resurrecting the Middle East peace process if the ruling Liberal government abandons that evenhanded stance for a pro-Israel shift in policy, says Mazen Chouaib, executive director of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
Chouaib cites Canada’s decision in July to abstain when the United Nations General Assembly, including European Union (EU) nations, overwhelmingly supported a resolution that urged Israel to comply with a World Court ruling that found the wall it is building around Palestinian territory in the West Bank, which Israel occupies, is illegal.
It was, "a dangerous turning point, absolutely, for Canada to argue that international law should not be used in this case." The court was "one of the few nonviolent means at the disposal of the Palestinians," says Chouaib in an interview.
John Sigler, a Carleton University professor of political science and international relations, agrees that Canada departed from its usual stance at the United Nations of "upholding the international legal system."
Nevertheless, Sigler told IPS, he expects the government will not totally abandon its centrist position at the United Nations regarding Israel and the Palestinians in order to side with Israel and its small number of allies, led by the United States.
Many observers are speculating about the influence of the group, Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel, whose members include a number of cabinet ministers in the current government, including Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, a reputed expert on international law.
IPS was unable to get an interview with Member of Parliament (MP) Anita Neville, who chairs the pro-Israel group.
In a 2003 submission to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, the Liberal Parliamentarians urged the government to drop its policy of "proportionate response" which generally blames both sides for the violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Instead, the group suggested that officials "be aware of the self-discipline that the Israeli military exercises in an attempt to limit and minimize collateral damage during its security operations," in what the group called the "disputed territories" of the West Bank and Gaza.
The language used by the Liberal Parliamentarians to describe the status of the Palestinian territories, which Israel wrested from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, reflects opposition by lobbyists for Israel’s foreign policy interests in Ottawa to legal terms like "occupied" which Canada and the majority of the world’s countries have used until now to describe the current situation.
"Israel does occupy it, but they are disputed territories. They are not Palestinian territories until such time as Israeli and Palestinian representatives come to the conclusion in negotiation on who should take possession of what," says Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer for the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC).
And like the Ariel Sharon-led government of Israel, Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel rejects any suggestion that suicide bomb attacks on civilians in Israel by Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza are a form of local, escalating retaliation against Israeli military activity.
Instead, the group suggests Israel is confronting terrorists "similar" to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda movement, which Liberal Parliamentarians says should be opposed as part of the U.S.-declared global "war on terror."
Both Prime Minister Paul Martin and Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew deny Canada’s policy toward the Middle East has altered substantially.
"We believe strongly, incontrovertibly, in Israel’s right to defend itself from those bent on destroying it. At the same time, we have already urged the government of Israel to pursue all avenues that may lead toward a lasting peace," Martin told a November dinner organized by the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) in Toronto.
Martin was responding to media reports that some Liberal MPs who represent significant Muslim constituencies are upset with what they view as their government’s tilt toward Israel.
But Fogel, chief executive officer for the CIC, an organization that lobbies for greater Canadian support for Israel, traces opposition to Canada’s support for Israel to the bureaucracy.
He told IPS that "a rump group" of retired and possibly pro-Arab foreign affairs department officials are using the media "to weaken the resolve of the government" concerning its Middle East policy.
Sigler calls that characterization "really nonsense," and counters that the CIC and CIJA are upset that their quiet and somewhat successful lobbying efforts among at least three major federal political parties have come under the public spotlight.
These two organizations are sensitive about any charges that they have had "excessive influence" in Ottawa, he adds.
Two explanations have been offered for the perceived shift in Canada’s Middle East policy.
One, says Sigler, is that concerns about increased criticism in Canada of Israel’s role in the Palestinian territories led a few years ago to the formation of the more effective CIJA, which, for the first time, bound more closely together the CIC and the Canadian Jewish Congress, the latter which has primarily focused on Jewish ethnic interests in Canada.
Also, Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson has written of fears by unnamed Canadian government officials that a stronger tilt toward Israel reflects how security issues in the post-9/11 period are altering the priorities in Canadian foreign policy under the Martin government.
Martin came to power after former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, also from the Liberal Party, resigned in December 2003. In June, Martin’s government won reelection but with only a minority of seats in the elected House of Commons, meaning he must rely on support from other parties to stay in power.
Other observers say Martin’s government, which could face an election in the next year or so because of its minority status, will in its public pronouncements about the Middle East avoid alienating its large base of support among both Jewish and Muslim voters.
Domestic issues largely influence Ottawa’s Mideast policy, says Sheldon Gordon, a policy director for the Canadian Friends of Peace Now, an organization that backs the Israeli group, Peace Now.
"The government’s main concern is that it wants more than anything to maintain a level of domestic peace, domestic harmony, that would be probably too difficult to maintain if it got too far in one direction or the other," Gordon said in an interview.
All of this is somewhat academic for Canadians of Arab origin, who say Canada is more likely to condemn Palestinian attacks on Israelis than to take Israel to task for violence directed against Palestinians in the territories.
For instance, Canada has officially condemned Israel’s targeted assassinations of officials in the Palestinian organization Hamas because of their possible impact on attempts to renew the peace process, not because such killings violate international law, argues Chouaib.
Notwithstanding its "confused" Middle East policy, Canada, only a "middle" power, has the means and credibility to take "bold" steps to bring the main players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the peace table, much in the way Norway did with the initial Oslo accords in the early 1990s, he adds.
"Frankly, the only honest broker that can play a role right now is Canada. Canada is seen in the Middle East as an honest player. It has no ambition, it has no baggage in the region."