With the U.N. Commission on Human Rights opening this week in Geneva, Israel is looking to Canada for crucial support usually provided by the United States, which lost its seat on the 53-member body last year.
In short, the Israelis hope that Canada will call for a vote on a series of one-sided anti-Israel resolutions that might otherwise pass by consensus without dissent or debate.
As Israeli diplomats respectfully request Ottawa to tilt its usually “balanced” view of Middle Eastern affairs, Canadian Jews and others have become increasingly forceful in urging their government to abandon the even-handed strategy that it has employed for decades.
The Jewish community’s growing dissatisfaction with the government’s careful neutrality between Israel and the Arab world became obvious earlier this month at a series of events in Ottawa during a visit by Israeli President Moshe Katsav.
According to many observers, Ottawa seemed to be playing a game of bad cop, good cop as Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and Prime Minister Jean Chretien, respectively, roasted and toasted Israel just hours apart at a luncheon and dinner hosted by the Jewish community’s Canada-Israel Committee.
In his first major address on foreign policy, the foreign affairs minister harshly criticized Israel for killing innocent civilians in its struggle against Palestinian terrorism.
“Innocent civilian casualties, no matter their background or religion, are not justifiable and ultimately compromise Israel’s image as a vital and compassionate nation as well as ultimately undermine the hopes of Palestinians,” Graham said, eliciting obvious displeasure from the largely Jewish audience.
He also condemned “senseless attacks” of recent days without making any distinction between Palestinian terrorist attacks on crowded discotheques, restaurants and buses, and Israeli reprisals targeting Palestinian terrorists.
Hearing the boos, hisses and occasional jeers of his audience, Graham dropped sections of his prepared text, which further criticized Israel for its “demolition of civilian housing” and “incursions into refugee camps.”
Even so, several people walked out of the room in disgust.
By contrast, Chretien offered firm sympathy and support for “a safe and secure” Israel at a dinner attended by about 1,500 people, mostly from various Jewish communities across the country. The guest list included senators, jurists, Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament.
“There is nothing in our experience that can capture the fear that Israelis now live with — every hour of the day, where allowing your children to go to a pizza parlor or a disco or just to play in the park can be a choice between life and death,” Chretien said.
The prime minister urged Israelis to re-engage in peace talks with the Palestinians, and called upon Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to rein in extremist groups that “use the territory under his authority for safe harbor.”
Keith Landy, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, praised the prime minister as the person “who best articulates Canadian foreign policy” and said the Foreign Affairs Ministry “needs to play catch-up.”
“What the foreign minister failed to recognize in his comment about killing innocent civilians is that Israel is going into refugee camps not to kill innocent men, women and children but to ferret out bomb factories and track down terrorists.”
Landy said the foreign minister’s speech reflected the so-called balanced approach that the department of foreign affairs has utilized for decades, but did not reflect the current situation in the Middle East or the world.
“What it failed to do is recognize a shift in world thinking,” he said. “There is a real irony today that Canada is at war fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, and yet the Foreign Ministry fails to recognize that Israel is engaged in the same war.”
Graham’s harsh criticisms of Israel came “as a shock, as a disappointment, even at times as an insult” to the Jewish community, said Frank Dimant, B’nai Brith Canada’s executive vice president.
“I think the audience felt, justifiably, that he didn’t differentiate clearly enough between acts of terrorism as perpetuated by Arafat and his forces, and the kinds of measures that the Israelis have to take to protect their citizens and ensure security for the people of Israel,” he said.
“If the audience wasn’t so well-mannered and polite, and wasn’t acting so typically Canadian, they would have walked out of that room.”
Not even the prime minister’s speech a few hours later could neutralize the bad feelings generated by the foreign minister’s talk, said Rochelle Wilner, B’nai Brith Canada’s national president.
“Although Chretien’s statements were positive, he gave us no assurances that Canada’s foreign policy would change, and no indication that Canada’s votes at the United Nations would be pro-Israel from here on in.”
In a talk the next day, Katsav praised Canada’s generally friendly relations with Israel and said the two nations were like “brothers.”
But he told reporters that Canada’s foreign minister had made a “serious mistake” by condemning Israel for the killing of innocents.
“No one around the world has any right to condemn if we would use our right to defend ourselves. Self defense is an elementary right and we must do it,” he said.
He also emphasized that Israel does not seek an escalation of the violence.
“Palestinian civilians are not our targets. Unfortunately, from time to time, there are some accidents and we try to avoid it. But they are not our targets.”
Numerous Canadian newspaper columnists have called upon Ottawa to show more support for Israel as it faces what political affairs columnist Marcus Gee, writing in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, called “the most intense and sustained terrorist assault that any modern nation has endured.”
Robert Fulford, writing in the rival National Post on the same day, described Canada’s usual attitude in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a “plague-on-both-your-houses” stance.
“But if it’s the Canadian way it’s also short-sighted and immoral,” he wrote, urging the government to become “a firm supporter and, if necessary, an ally” of Israel.
A poll published in the Globe and Mail on March 16 indicated that 16 percent of Canadians tend to support Israel in the current conflict, while 12 percent support the Palestinians, 17 percent support both sides, 48 percent support neither side and 6 percent said they didn’t know.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.