TORONTO, Aug. 6 (JTA) Unable to stop the drift toward war in their native land, Israeli and Palestinian legislators hope to be more successful in the quieter atmosphere of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
A Canadian parliamentary committee is making arrangements for the Halifax Peace Forum, which is expected to bring together six representatives each from the Israeli Knesset, the Palestinian legislative council and the Canadian Parliament for talks in the Nova Scotian capital from Oct. 14 to 16.
The initiative was launched last January by Bill Casey, a member of Canada’s Parliament from the Conservative Party, shortly after he approached Israeli and Palestinian diplomats stationed in Canada.
Both representatives told him that Canada should do more to promote peace in the Middle East.
“Both sides said the same thing, and that really impressed me,” Casey told JTA. “They said that Canada could help facilitate and help build bridges that could lead to peace. They said that Canada was in a unique position, that Canada could do something that other countries couldn’t do.”
Casey discussed the idea of a forum with Liberal Party Parliament member Bill Graham, chair of a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, and quickly won his support.
Then Casey, from Nova Scotia, approached House Speaker Peter Milliken, who wrote to his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts asking for their support and help in coordinating invitations to legislators from each side.
Accompanying Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East in May, Casey delivered the letters to Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Ahmed Karia, speaker of the Palestinian legislative council. Both responded enthusiastically.
Casey also met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, winning their support for the initiative.
Both sides have confirmed their desire to meet in Halifax in October despite the escalating Mideast violence, said Mark Entwistle, the veteran Canadian diplomat who is the forum’s executive director.
“So far we have full green lights from the Israelis and the Palestinians in terms of wanting to have this opportunity kept open,” he said. “So that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Entwistle, who was press secretary to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, said the steering committee is attempting to formulate a “smart agenda” to meet the needs of both sides.
He said the forum would have two main objectives to build a new line of communication between Israelis and Palestinians and to discuss how Canada can play a more constructive role in the region.
“What makes this interesting is that it’s a political meeting between elected legislators,” Entwistle said. “But it’s important to mention that it’s not meant as a negotiating session. There are negotiators elsewhere.”
“Our goals are very modest,” Casey said. “We want to establish a dialogue. We want to learn from them what the issues are and what the best role for Canada might be.”
David Cooper, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, expressed support for the Canadian initiative.
“We believe in dialogue, and we feel it’s something that won’t hurt,” he said. “Also, it will give Canadian parliamentarians some insight into the complex problems of the Middle East.”
Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors have praised the idea, Casey said.
“The Canadian people, much more than the government, are getting behind this. They’re volunteering to help in so many ways,” Casey said. “We’ve received offers from the Jewish community, the Arab community and many others.”
Among the offers of hospitality is one from Nova Scotia’s Jewish Lieutenant Governor Myra Freeman, who is planning to hold a reception for the visitors at Government House in Halifax.
“From the Canadian side, we’re delighted to offer a safe and neutral venue,” Entwistle said. “We’ll take it one day at a time as we organize it.”