Is it time for Canada to reassess Israeli relations?

While U.S. policy toward Israel is showing signs of change, Canada’s is unwavering. This year’s election provides our opportunity.
By: /
April 2, 2015

In the wake of the recent Israeli Knesset elections, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated Canada’s support for a “two-state solution” in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet while officially Canada has long maintained that it “is committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state,” in reality Canada’s “special friendship” with the Netanyahu government during Harper’s tenure has essentially facilitated the demise of the “two states for two peoples” idea it supposedly endorses.

If there was any doubt regarding Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to a two-state solution, it was dispelled when the Likud leader explicitly made clear just a day before elections that if he were elected, a Palestinian state would not be created. These very comments have led the United States to “reassess” its policy toward Israel. On the rhetorical level, U.S. policy towards Israel is already showing signs of change, with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough telling a pro-Israel J Street conference on March 26 that “an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state.” Whether the Obama administration’s open rebuking of Netanyahu will lead to actual policy adjustments remains to be seen. Yet at least the Americans have made explicit their displeasure with Netanyahu’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have even hinted about “consequences” for Israel including possible U.S. support for a Security Council resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In contrast, Canada’s response has been mute. What Canadian policy makers need to understand is that from now on it will be increasingly difficult to officially support the “two-state solution” while at the same time maintain warm relations with Netanyahu. With the collapse of recent peace talks and Netanyahu’s blunt statements against the founding of a Palestinian state, Canada can no longer have its cake and eat it too.

If Canada is sincere in its support for the creation of a Palestinian state, as it has officially declared, then it should recognize its advantaged position could be put to good use here. Harper has for some time been considered Netanyahu’s “closest ally,” and in advance of the federal election, he could spend the next few months using this unique position to advance real, progressive policies between Israel and Palestine. That may dampen relations, but, like Obama’s Cuban legacy, it just may put Harper in the history books.

If this government is up for the task, there are three immediate steps to be taken:

1. Pressure the Netanyahu government to stop settlement construction in the occupied territories.

Canada’s stated policy on settlements beyond the green line is clear: “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” Yet in recent years the Canadian government has done very little to persuade Israel to stop settlement construction. In fact the Harper government recently boycotted a UN conference on Israeli settlement expansion because according to John Baird it “singled out” Israel for criticism. The question that should be asked is, if Canada is truly against the expansion of settlements and considers them as a “serious obstacle” to peace, then shouldn’t it be leading the way in such criticism rather than avoiding it? Since the start of the Peace Process in 1993, the settlement population has increased from around 280,000, to around 700,000 in 2014. This expansion has made the creation of a viable Palestinian state essentially impossible. This is why if Canada supports a “two-state solution” then it should use its “friendship” with Israel to stop settlement growth.

2. Promote Canadian values to Israel.

Canada declares that its relation with Israel is built “first and foremost on shared values” such as the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights. Yet when Netanyahu and his government threaten these very same values Canada fails to criticize its ally. For example when Netanyahu declared during the recent election campaign that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” in a bid to pursue his supporters to come out and vote, his statements were widely criticized both inside and outside Israel for being discriminatory. Again, Canada remained silent. If the Harper government sees the promotion of liberal values as one of the hallmarks of its “principled foreign policy” approach, then it should not have double standards in its implementation.

3. Finally, Canada must reassess its approach to the conflict.

As time goes on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be taking a turn for the worse. Following the recent Israeli elections, President Obama declared that the prospect for a two-state solution were “dim.” Meanwhile the situation in the occupied territories is deteriorating with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently declaring that Israel killed more Palestinian civilians in 2014 than any other year since 1967. This is why Canada should reexamine its policy objectives based on the new realities of the conflict. Without such reconsideration the costs of Canada’s unconditional support for Israel are bound to increase in the future.