TORONTO, April 12 (JTA) Despite attempts to put his best political foot forward, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien stepped headlong into controversy during a visit to the Middle East.
The gaffe occurred when Chretien told reporters Monday that Canada would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood should peace negotiations with Israel fail.
Not only does that position run counter to Canada’s long-standing support for the Oslo peace process but, as the prime minister’s political handlers soon realized, his comment could be interpreted as supporting a similar move by the separatist province of Quebec.
A day later, Chretien created another uproar when he angered Syrians by saying Israel should retain control of the Sea of Galilee a subject that has contributed to an ongoing deadlock in Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Soon after Chretien made the remark about Palestinian statehood, as his jet was readying to leave the Gaza Strip, he ventured to the back section of the aircraft to offer a clarification to the Canadian reporters traveling with him.
A unilateral declaration of statehood, “under international law, applies when you are a colony or an occupied territory,” he said. “Quebec is not a colony. Quebec is a province of Canada. It is not the same thing.”
Both he and his communications director, Francoise Ducros, later made a further clarification, insisting that Chretien had not meant that the Palestinians should use the declaration as a bargaining ploy and that they should attempt to achieve statehood through bilateral negotiations with Israel in accordance with the Oslo peace process.
Chretien’s diplomatic gaffes made headlines across Canada.
One national newspaper screamed from its front page, “Chretien Blunders Into Peace Process.”
In an editorial titled “Clueless in Gaza,” the National Post warned the prime minister that “the Middle East is not a place for the foreign affairs amateur.”
Meanwhile, Chretien’s political enemies from Quebec’s national and provincial separatist parties were equally quick to criticize him.
But Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Parti Quebecois, did not attempt to gain political mileage by translating Chretien’s remarks into a context that might benefit the local separatist cause.
“I cannot make direct links of what he said to our particular situation,” Bouchard said. “I think those were off-the-cuff remarks which put all of us in embarrassment.”
Representatives of the Canada-Israel Committee seemed unperturbed by the controversy.
“We’re satisfied with the way that the Prime Minister’s Office has clarified the remark,” said group spokesman Paul Michaels. “There’s no change in Canada’s policy.”
Amir Maimon, charges d’affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, seemed equally willing to forgive and forget.
Chretien’s visit to Israel “reflects the good relationship that exists between the two countries. As far as we’re concerned, there’s no change in the long-standing Canadian position regarding the Middle East peace process,” said Maimon.
During his 12-day Middle East tour, Chretien also planned to visit Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.