Canada is the second-largest country in the world, has the 11th-largest economy, is No. 37 in population and – since 2008 – has contributed over $350 million to the Palestinian Authority.
None of that, however, kept PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat from penning an op-ed last Friday in The Globe and Mail calling on Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird – who arrived in Israel that day for a five-day visit to the region – to apologize to the Palestinians.
And what was Baird’s sin? His spokesman said Erekat himself owed an apology for “offensive and ridiculous” comments equating Israel with Islamic State.
Earlier this month, Erekat said there was “no difference between the terrorism practiced by the group [Islamic State] led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Israel’s terrorism.” Ending settlement activities, he insisted, “is a prerequisite for eliminating terrorism.”
These words elicited a sharp response from Baird’s spokesman, Rick Roth: “Mr. Erekat should instead focus his efforts on negotiating a peaceful solution for the good of the Palestinian people, and spend less time working to inflame tensions in the region.”
Erekat’s pointed non-apology came in the Globe and Mail
op-ed, under the headline, “It is John Baird who needs to apologize to the Palestinian people.”
“After spending the past few years listening to Mr. Baird going out of his way to legitimize the banality and brutality of a 50-year-old Israeli occupation, I tell Mr. Baird: enough. If there is anyone that has to apologize, it is Mr. Baird himself,” he wrote. “He should first apologize to his own citizenry, many of whom are God-loving Jews, Christians and Muslims who would never condone nor cheer for an Israeli government that stretches support to Israeli settlers who attack churches and mosques.”
“Mr. Baird should apologize for his active encouragement of Israel’s brute and ugly occupation and its apartheid policies,” Erekat continued. “He should apologize for failing to promote those things Canadians hold dear such as freedom, dignity and human rights, and for replacing those ideals with an outspoken support of Israel’s clear and undisputed violations of international law.”
And then on Monday morning, when Baird went to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Erekat issued another statement, saying, “We regret the Canadian government’s decision to stand on the wrong side of history, by blindly supporting the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies.”
According to the statement, Baird “contributed to Israeli violations of Palestinian inalienable rights, including our right to self-determination, by systematically lobbying against all Palestinian diplomatic initiatives.”
The Palestinian people as well as the rest of the Arab and Muslim countries, the statement thundered, “deserve an apology from the Canadian government, for years of systematic attempts at blocking the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own.”
And then, when Baird emerged from his meeting with Maliki in Ramallah and entered his motorcade for the trip back to Jerusalem, Palestinian protesters
– some of them calling Baird a terrorist – pelted his car and convoy with eggs and shoes.
“I didn’t see the shoes,” he quipped in an interview Tuesday with The Jerusalem Post. “I heard there were shoes, but I didn’t see any.”
As to the splattered eggs, Baird – arguably the most pro-Israel foreign minister in the world – said that didn’t faze him much.
“I’m a big boy,” said Baird, who was in the country for the sixth time since becoming foreign minister four years ago. “A few eggs are not going to intimidate me or Canada from the moral clarity with which we approach these issues.”
And it is that “moral clarity” which, indeed, has won him and Ottawa great appreciation and applause in Jerusalem.
Before their meeting Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Baird and Canada precisely for that moral clarity.
“You have consistently demonstrated a willingness to stand up for what is right and to oppose what is wrong,” Netanyahu said. “To fight Islamist terrorism, we need clarity and courage; Canada has both.
“You know who is the aggressor; you know who is the defender. You know that Israel legitimately defends itself against the war crimes of Hamas and other terrorist groups. You know that it’s a travesty of justice to haul Israel to the dock in The Hague, and you know that the entire system of international law could unravel because of this travesty.”
And if all that does not find favor in Erekat’s eyes, then Baird – as he made clear – can live with it.
“I’m not going to get into a debate with Saeb Erekat,” he said, dismissing Erekat’s criticism. “The other day he likened Israeli government actions to Islamic State beheadings of journalists and religious minorities. It is just deeply offensive.”
As to the impact the protesters in Ramallah will have on him, Baird – who said he has faced much worse in his political career – acknowledged that “it certainly doesn’t do anything to strengthen” Canada’s relationship with the PA.
The PA’s filing a petition to the International Criminal Court in The Hague against Israel is also not doing much to improve those relations.
“This is wrong on so many levels,” said Baird, whose country was one of the founders of the ICC and is a significant donor.
“First and foremost, Israel – every time it comes under attack – seems to have to have one hand tied behind its back. And what this seems to do is tie the other hand behind its back.”
And secondly, he said, the ICC is not to be used where there are mechanisms for domestic judicial processes and review. “And obviously, Israel has one of the most independent judiciaries in the world,” he said.
Baird said that Canada has “filed an objection” with the court, explaining its opposition to opening a preliminary investigation against Israel, but said the chances of that having an impact are “a long shot.”
“We are going to speak out forcefully against this decision, and try to get it turned around,” he said.
“It’s tough, but we just fundamentally have a major problem with this decision.”
Baird was noncommittal, however, on whether Canada might be willing to withhold funds to the court, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested – saying that was his government’s decision to make, and not his alone.
Asked his advice on how he thought Israel should deal with the ICC threat, Baird said it was clear after meeting with Israeli officials from across the political spectrum that everyone is taking the threat “very seriously” and are speaking out on it very forcefully, something he characterized as a “good start.”
“I noted in my meetings that the one thing which serves Israel well is that it speaks with one voice on this, regardless of the party. That is a strong signal at a sensitive time.”
Baird said the verdict was still out whether the attacks in Paris two weeks ago would make the world more understanding toward Israel’s plight.
“These types of things unfortunately happened in this region and in this country on a more regular basis,” he said. “It reminds us how small the world is and how terrorism is the great struggle of our generation, and that humanity has to work successfully to tackle it.
For Canada, obviously, our Israeli friends and Jewish friends are too often on the front lines of that struggle, and that is why we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Baird diplomatically danced around questions about whether Israel has become more isolated internationally under Netanyahu, and what the country needed to do to it improve its standing in the world, saying these were election- related issues. When going to the polls, he maintained, the Israeli people “do not need color commentary from the Canadian foreign minister.”
But Israelis will not be the only ones going to the polls in 2015; so will Canadians, due to have elections in October. Asked if he thought Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rock-solid and unflinching support of Israel will cost him and his party at the polls, Baird said, “We don’t support Israel because it gets us votes.”
“The Jewish population in Canada is small, and a fraction of the Arab and Muslim population,” he noted, adding that the present government supports Israel so strongly “because it is the right thing to do. I think when you do the right thing, in the end you will meet with success.
“We don’t do it for political gain, that is for sure.”