Diplomacy: Warm support from the chilly North

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird explains his government’s support of Israel to the ‘Post.’

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird_390 (photo credit: Courtesy of Herzliya Conference)
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird_390
(photo credit: Courtesy of Herzliya Conference)
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 reply.
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 answer.
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 Canada.
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.
First 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 ally.
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?
We 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 enthusiasm.
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 interference?
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 this?
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?
Yes. 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?
We have 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?
I think 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 generation.
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 results.
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 Hamas?
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 construction?
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.
Iran supports 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 Iran?
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 world.
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 counterbalance them.
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 delegitimize Israel.
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 that.
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 seriously.
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 consequences?
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.
France? In 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.