The Hill Times, a Canadian weekly newspaper that covers that country’s politics,
recently came out with its annual edition of the country’s 100 most influential
people in government and politics. John Baird, Canada’s Conservative 42-year-old
foreign minister, was listed as number three.
“If you weren’t in
politics, what would you want to be doing,” Baird was asked in the magazine
interview. “Likely working on a kibbutz in Israel,” was his
Anyone who heard Baird either in private conversation or public
appearances this week – he was in Israel for diplomatic meetings and to take
part in the Herzliya Conference – would not be surprised by his
The man, appointed Canada’s foreign minister in May 2011, likes
Israel – a lot.
And Baird is not the only one. Since Stephen Harper
became the country’s prime minister in 2006, Canada went from being a
middle-of-the-road friend of Israel – somewhere between the US and the European
Union – to setting the gold standard for support of the Jewish state. There is
not a government on the planet today more supportive of Israel than Harper’s
And the love runs both ways. According to the personable
and informal Baird – he came out of the elevator for this interview at his Tel
Aviv hotel without security guards, dressed casually, looking like just another
tourist, and was introduced simply as “John” – one of the frustrations of the
political life is a lack of appreciation.
“The amount of warmth and love
for Canada here in Israel is just unbelievable,” he said. “I was told about this
beforehand, but it has been a real pleasure because often you will do things and
deliver things for your own constituents and not get a lot of appreciation. But
holy moly, that certainly is not the case here.”
What follows are
excerpts of the interview with Baird.You said in your speech this week
at the Herzliya Conference that Israel has no better friend in the world than
Canada. Where is that coming from? Is it Prime Minister Harper? Is it yourself?
Is it the Canadian people? Because it hasn't always been this way.
and foremost it is some of the prime minister’s leadership. There is no moral
ambiguity; he’s not one who believes in moral relativism. The prime minister’s
leadership is very strong on this. There are a number of ministers – I'm one –
who feel very passionately about Israel.
I can recall being here once [a
number of years ago] and talking to the Canadian ambassador and asking why
Canada is so against Israel. “What do you mean,” he said. I said, “all these
resolutions at the UN.” When he said they don’t mean anything, my response was,
“Well if they don't mean anything why do we vote for them?” And his reply was,
“Oh that just happens every year.”
There are a lot of Canadians who agree
with us; some disagree with us. But Mr. Harper has said this, and I have
said it many times too, that too often in the past Canada’s [foreign policy] is
just “go along to get along.” And it is easier to do that. If someone
asked in the past about Canada’s foreign policy, the working assumption would be
that it is whatever our historical policy has been and what the international
consensus is among our allies. But now we base it on values and
principles.Is this coming from a religious place for the prime minister?
Is this religious-based support?
No, I don’t think so. It is very similar to me.
After the Holocaust it is tremendously important for there to be a Jewish
homeland, a Jewish state that can be a place of refuge. In this region today
there is only one liberal democracy, only one place that values and respects
democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And that is our
My grandfather went to war in 1942 – the big struggle of his
generation was fascism and then communism. The great struggle of my generation,
of our generation, is terrorism. Too often Israel is on the front line of that
struggle, and it is tremendously important that we take a principled stand and
support our friend and ally.How well does that resonate in Canada?
certainly don’t do it for electoral advantage. It is not an electoral
winner. Foreign policy is not a big issue in Canadian
politics.How about the Jewish vote?
There are 2,800 Jews in my
constituency in Ottawa. I have 11,500 Muslims and Arabs. The Arab and Muslim
population is much larger. So I don't think we do it for electoral
reasons. We’ve gotten great support from the Jewish community in Canada,
which we value, but it is not done with an electoral calculation in
mind.Has it, or could it, hurt you politically?
When you stand up for
your values and you do something that is basically right, you are never
hurt.How about around the world? Is Canada’s stature diminished in
Europe because of your support for Israel?
If, as the minister of foreign
affairs, my job was to wake up in the morning and ask how to be popular, this
probably wouldn’t be the way to do it. But at the same time it is not an
albatross by any stretch. There are some who don’t share our views, who don’t
agree to our intervention in international forums with unbridled
I was in the [Persian] Gulf for five days in late November
and one of the Canadian reporters said, “Baird is going to the Gulf and this
[Canada’s support for Israel] will be the elephant in the room for the entire
five days.” No one brought it up. No one.
People may disagree with
our position, but they respect that we have differences. There are folks
who didn’t agree with me. I don’t agree with them on everything. That doesn’t
mean I stick my finger in their eye at every meeting, and vice versa.How
about with Europe?
Certainly Prime Minister Harper fought very hard for a
balanced statement on the conflict at the G-8 [last may in France, when Canada
was instrumental in softening a statement on the Middle East and keeping out any
mention of the pre-1967 lines as a basis for an Israeli-Palestinian
agreement]. Of course it would just be easier if Canada would just shut
up, sit in the corner and not cause any problems. But we got good support
from President Obama, for example, on that.But isn’t it harming your
stature in the world? Didn't you lose a 2010 vote to join the Security Council
because of it?
There is no doubt that it was unhelpful in the Security Council.
I don’t think you could say there was one particular reason [why Canada lost to
Portugal for a temporary seat on the Security Council]. But that was certainly
one of the reasons.How about ties with Washington? When there was
considerable tension here between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu,
did Canada have any role to play in smoothing things over or running
I hope there is never a day when the prime minister of Israel
needs the intervention of the prime minister of Canada in Washington.You
said that Canada is Israel’s greatest friend in the world. Where is the US in
I think the US is a good friend, too. I like to think we are
better.In what sense?
A stronger friend How does that manifest itself?
Take the G-8 communiqué. It made reference to President Obama’s speech. It made
reference to certain things he said in the speech. But if you want to talk about
1967 borders with land swaps, let’s talk about Israel as a Jewish state. If you
want to talk about this, we can talk about a future Palestinian state being
demilitarized. If you want to talk about the speech, we’ll talk about the
speech. If you want to be general we can be general. If you want to be specific,
we would want some of those more favorable comments toward Israel included in
the communiqué.So you were out in front of the US on that issue?
President Obama was very supportive in the end.Regarding the diplomatic
process with the Palestinians, are we stuck conceptually? We have been trying
the same thing since Oslo and it hasn’t moved. Is there anything you can
recommend to do things differently?
I wouldn’t say we haven’t come very far
since Oslo. I visited Ramallah, and there is a Palestinian Authority with a
president and prime minister. Their capacity on security has improved
immeasurably in recent years.But the whole paradigm that we can
negotiate a solution...
I don’t think there is any other
alternative. It may be an unattractive one, but it is the best and only.
I don’t know how anyone can impose peace; I don't know how anyone can impose
security. At the end of the day you want an agreement and a solution, but you
also want to be able to shake hands and live in peace and harmony. Other
than negotiations, I don’t know any other way to do it.Two years ago
Canada cut its funding to UNRWA.
Some at the UN have treated Canada like
an ATM – we are the 17th-largest economy, but the seventh-largest contributor [to
the UN].But does the change in your UNRWA policy represent a thinking
that we may have reached the time where Palestinian refugees should be settled
permanently and not left in refugee camps?
I am not going to step on that
landmine. I was just in Davos and had a long chat with one of my
predecessors from the other party, John Manley. He made some statements on that
[in 2001], and they burnt him in effigy in Ramallah. So I think I will choose my
words on that very carefully. [Manley at the time said Canada was prepared to
accept Palestinian refugees as part of a peace plan and to contribute to an
international fund to assist with their resettlement.] I had a conversation with
a European diplomat recently who said one way to get the Palestinians back to
negotiations would be to use financial contributions as leverage. He said
European public opinion would never allow it. Should that be considered?
a $300 million development partnership with the Palestinian Authority, and by
and large it is going toward increasing their capacity in security, police,
justice, forensics – and I think those things are all positive. They are
all good things for the Palestinian people and, I think, good things for the
Israeli people as well. So let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face. We want
to see a vibrant, prosperous, secure [Palestinian] state. They are developing
that right now and we are keen in helping them do that. It is in Israel’s
advantage as well.
I think the bulk of our investments are accomplishing
good things. I think Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad’s government is a quiet
success story. The security situation in the West Bank has improved
immeasurably. The economy there has improved by leaps and bounds, and
that is in everyone’s interest.
Obviously we have strong differences of
opinion in terms of going to the UN; we think it is the wrong way to go. But I
don’t think you can threaten either side just encourage them.But if you
don’t threaten the sides, how do you get them back to the table?
Look at what
happened at the end of 2000 [after the end of the Camp David talks]. There was
all this external pressure for a deal, and when it collapsed it was not pretty
scenario on the ground here afterward [the Second Intifada erupted]. I think we
can encourage both parties to go back to the negotiation table. You are more
likely to make progress by trying than not trying, and engaging rather than not
engaging.In your speech at Herzliya you quoted Winston Churchill about
the dangers of appeasing fascism. Is the west today appeasing terrorism?
terrorism is a scourge and it requires leadership to confront it. There
is no room for moral ambiguity. It is the great struggle of our
I was down in Sderot earlier today. Terror is not
exclusively the death count, or those who are injured. What does a mother say to
a child who can’t go to sleep at night because he is so scared? There are
teachers teaching games to their students on what to do when they have 15
seconds [to get to a bomb shelter]. There is culture of fear that results from
terrorism and the threat of terrorism. It is hard to quantify it. We can say “x
number of people were killed in this or that incident” but there is a culture of fear that
has gripped far too many people around the world.Has the West adequately
stepped up to the plate to deal with it?
I think Canada has. We have been very
clear. We listed Hamas as a terror entity and won’t have any contact with them.
I think that is the right thing to do.You met this week with the
Palestinian leadership; what was your message to them?
Look, there are many
areas where we have agreements, areas where we have substantive disagreements. I
am very impressed by Fayyad’s public administration skills. I think many of us
in the West have taken note of his leadership and financial accountability and
success in economy and security. He is certainly a good, strong leader who gets
With President [Mahmoud] Abbas we agree with him on many things
and we disagree with him on others. That is what diplomacy is all about. I found
President Abbas to be very honest and up front, and I found that quite
refreshing.What would Canada’s policy be if he formed a government with
We don’t support terrorism. That is our policy and it is crystal
clear.Would you cut off contact with the PA?
We just will not work with
terrorists.How about Israel? What would you like Netanyahu to do now
that he is not doing to move the process forward?
I had a good meeting with the
prime minister. We had a good exchange. I think good friends should have
conversations and be honest with each other. I was [honest] with him and he was
with me, and I'll leave that private.What about freezing settlement
I think unilateral action on either side is unhelpful. I will have
to go through my newspaper clippings and see if there was great kudos when they
did it the last time for 10 months; or great kudos when they withdrew from
southern Lebanon; or withdrew from Gaza. I think the key is to return to
negations without preconditions and, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said in his UN
speech, stop negotiating about negotiations.Turning to Iran, how little
do we know about what is going on there?
What we know is that this is a regime
that is enriching uranium and that has a clear nuclear arms program underway.
That is undisputable. We know that Iran’s support of international terrorist
organizations in the region – whether it is Hamas, Hezbollah or Palestinian
Jihad – is an absolute disgrace and causing more problems.
a lot of evil and violence in this region particularly. And we know it has a
disgraceful human rights record that is frankly deteriorating.And as a
result, what should be done now?
We need to take every single diplomatic measure
to put pressure on the regime to take a different course. Obviously our first
choice would be to see the Iranian people make change themselves.Did the
West err in 2009 in not more actively supporting the protest movement inside
I wasn’t the foreign minister at the time, so I didn’t follow it close
enough to give you a substantive answer. Change is always better if it comes
from within. We learned that from Libya. But Iran is the one thing that is
omnipresent in foreign policy today.What does that mean?
It and Syria
are obviously the two subjects discussed at virtually every meeting, every
forum, with every counterpart. Obviously it is a huge threat to the
We don’t just fear that Iran would like to acquire nuclear weapons
and we don’t just fear that this would lead to an arms race by others trying to
I fear that they would use them. Too often, people
share these types of things with their friends, and these people have the worst
circle of friends in the world today. They are incredibly dangerous, and of that
we have no doubt.Are you concerned about a backlash against Jews if oil
prices rise to $150 a barrel as a result of sanctions against Iran?
I don’t see
the correlation. I used to look at Iran through the prism of Israel. But the
fear of much of the Arab world on Iran is palpable. It is a threat to
Canada. It is a threat to entire international peace and security.How is
it a threat to Canada?
A nuclear arms race in this region threatens the whole
world. If they use nuclear weapons on a friend or an ally, on one of our best
friends, that is unimaginable.
I think we have seen a new anti-Semitism
emerge around the world – delegitimizing the state of Israel. We see it popping
up in Canada: Israeli apartheid week on universities. It is all to
There was a political issue in Toronto where they
have quite a large gay pride parade, and they had a “queers against Israeli
apartheid” float. Outside of Israel, what is the record of any of Israeli
neighbors on those [gay] issues?
This is not to say that everyone who protests
Israel is anti-Semitic, but everyone who is anti Semitic certainly protests, or
tries to delegitimize the state of Israel, and we can’t be silent about
The most horrifying thing at Yad Vashem in many respects is not the
end of your tour of the museum, but the beginning. That’s the lesson I took away
from it. Anti-Semitism would sort of show its face among non-élites here and
there, and then grow to stereotypes in school text books and popular culture,
and then escalate into a little bit of vandalism and violence. And then you see,
gradually, step by step, the state started to turn its back and eventually lead
these efforts. That’s why I think we have to treat these things very
Yesterday at Yad Vashem the rabbi said it was the 79th
anniversary of Adolf Hitler becoming chancellor. He wrote Mein Kampf 12 years
before that. None of this was a surprise or a secret. So if you have the
president of Iran making these outrageous statements and then trying to acquire
nuclear weapons – I mean, what more do you need to inspire fear of the potential
It would be easier to just shut up and hope for the best, but
that’s not the best way to conduct foreign policy.That’s what a lot of
people are doing.
And that is a big mistake, and why we are speaking up
in the strongest terms.
I was in the Old City two years ago with a
Canadian friend and he ran into a family friend, a young French kid in the IDF
doing his service. He may have been 25. He was the victim of a hate crime in
France, had the pulp beat out of him, and the rising trend of anti-Semitism
caused him and his family to make aliya and come to Israel.
the 21st century this family uproots themselves and moves to a different
continent because of that? So I am concerned about the new rise of anti-Semitism
taking different forms. And that should be deeply disturbing for any fair-minded
human being.Are we appeasing Iran?
Canada and Israel are not.
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