Canada’s continuous commitment

Canada’s minister of state for foreign affairs of the Americas says his country stands by Israel’s right to defend itself.

Peter Kent (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peter Kent
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It may be mere protocol, but Peter Kent sports a badge with Israeli and Canadian flags on the lapel of his jacket with a pride surely far greater than that required by diplomatic custom. Canada’s minister of state for foreign affairs of the Americas is as staunch an ally as Israel could possibly hope for.
“Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper has adopted, I think, what is a very principled stand with regards to Canada and Israel,” says Kent when asked why Canada has been unflinching in its support. “From virtually the first months of his administration in 2006 he articulated very clearly that his position on issues with regard to the Mideast and Israel’s neighbors would be based on principle, and he demonstrated that during the Lebanon war and since at the United Nations in the annual votes that attempt to single out Israel over countries with far less solid reputations for democratic principles and practices and the rule of law, and try to victimize Israel on an annual basis in selective resolutions.
“Prime Minister Harper made very clear... that there is no moral equivalence between terrorism and oppression and democracy. There are some in the Canadian political spectrum who talk about a more balanced approach to the Middle East, but in fact there is no balance when it comes to rockets from Gaza on Sderot; there is no balance in attacks like the south Lebanon border incident [the August 3 killing of an IDF officer by a Lebanese army sniper]; there is no balance between those who would seek to destroy Israel and those who are willing and have demonstrated any number of times over recent years to come to a negotiated resolution.”
Kent, 67, is no stranger to Israel. He first came here in 1973 as a war correspondent in his previous incarnation as a journalist – a profession he left just over two years ago to make the transition into what he calls “the responsible side of public policy.” The current visit, which ended last week, is his first in his present capacity.
Kent recalls the Yom Kippur War when he followed Ariel Sharon’s tank column across the Suez Canal – “albeit in a taxi.” Since then he has been here many times. “I’ve had an opportunity as a former journalist to spend a lot of time here, admittedly more often in bad times than good,” he says. “But I’ve made a point of also trying to celebrate with my colleagues in Parliament and also with Canadians at large that Israel is not only a country often besieged by its undemocratic neighbors, but is also a country of great scientific, intellectual and cultural accomplishment.”
ELOQUENT AS A journalist, Kent has quickly mastered the language of diplomacy.Following his statement on Canada’s “principled stand” for Israel, he adds that its support for the latest round of peace talks is “solid and unwavering” and that it “supports the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas in terms of our investment of financial and human resources in trying to institution build in the PA to prepare for that eventual day of an independent Palestinian state.”
Canada, says Kent, has made a $300 million investment in that institution building effort with most of the money going into Operation Proteus, the Canadian contingent to the US-led mission to train and build the PA security forces. Canada is also putting funds into development assistance in the area of justice, specifically codification of a justice system appropriate to an independent state, renovation and construction of courthouses and knowledge in forensics and crime scene investigation for the prosecution of civil and criminal cases.
Kent adds that, as he told his counterparts in Ramallah and Jerusalem, “Canada stands ready to assist in whatever capacity as the peace talks go forward and preparations go forward, hopefully, toward a two-state solution.”
From your talks with Palestinian leaders, how willing are they to proceed, especially on the difficult core issues?
I don’t think anyone glosses over the core issues, the final status issues, but certainly in meetings with [PA Foreign Affairs] Minister [Riad] Malki and officials in the Foreign Ministry they are speaking from the same script that President Abbas laid out in Washington, and there is a commitment to make an effort to go the extra mile to achieve what has been so difficult to achieve.”
On the other hand, the other script coming from President Abbas has been “push me one bit and I’m going home.”
Well both leaders have the domestic environment to deal with in their respective communities. President Abbas also has to deal with Hamas and the very destructive obstructionism that Hamas is attempting to derail the talks.
Washington was an important start and I think that [in] the fact that both leaders have agreed to meet every two weeks there is at least a momentum and a commitment at least at this point to move forward.
We make clear at every opportunity that we are prepared to offer to both sides whatever we might, whether it’s refugees, Jerusalem, security. In any of these areas we stand ready to provide assistance in any way we might be able to.
What about Israel? Is Israel in your impression ready to make the necessary concessions?
Being in Israel and reading a cross section of the Israeli media, there is a spectrum of opinion of approval, criticism, skepticism, endorsement, and again it’s for Israeli and the Palestinians through their leaders to move toward that ultimate goal, however difficult.
It’s too important not to try, and I think the coming months are going to be interesting, they are going to be challenging... it’s a time of hope.
Would Canada be willing to put troops on the ground to back up a peace agreement?
Canada stands ready to assist in any way in the achievement of a negotiated two-state solution. It’s hypothetical to address at this point, but our commitment over the years has been continuous.
Canadian forces have served in the region in peace observation and various UN capacities and continue today. We have the largest number of military personnel taking part in Operation Proteus; it is our second largest deployment after Afghanistan.
Canada has been very vocal on Iran. What is Canada's position on Teheran’s nuclear weapon’s program?
We embraced and enacted the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1929 in June and in fact enacted sanctions which go further in specific areas with regard to oil and gas and relations with financial institutions and provision of listed personnel, including the Revolutionary Guards. We hope the international community will remain unified in its positions on the sanctions, and if broader, deeper sanctions are required, Canada will again consider those as they may be necessary.
And if sanctions fail?
Again we are into the hypothetical here, but Canada is as concerned as the other democracies who support Israel, who support the Security Council resolution in terms of ending [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s nuclear weaponry adventurism.
Time will tell. We hope that the sanctions will do the trick.
And if Israel were to decide to go it on its own?
I think I would leave that as a hypothetical question with a hypothetical answer which I can’t answer. But again Canada has made it very clear over the years that we defend Israel’s right to defend itself.
You have been quoted as saying that an attack on Israel is an attack on Canada.
What I was saying was not as much literal, what I was talking about was an attack on the values that we share: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In that area Canada is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel.
WHILE MUCH of Kent’s visit focused on the peace process, the reason for his visit was in fact to discuss areas of interest and concern in Latin America and the Caribbean, which fall under his umbrella as minister of state for foreign affairs of the Americas.
Canada has represented Israel’s interests in Cuba since 1973, when diplomatic relations were severed after the Yom Kippur War, and in Venezuela since Israel’s ambassador was expelled during Operation Cast Lead.
On the Venezuelan front, Kent expresses concern about an upsurge of state-promoted anti-Semitism. “This is an election month in Venezuela and the official media has again fired up some of the anti-Semitic slurs against the Jewish community as happened during the Gaza incursion,” he says.
“There has been, I understand, an agreement by [President Hugo] Chavez to meet with members of the Jewish community in Caracas, and Canada would hope that he encourage the media to lower the tone. We don’t like to initiate criticisms, but Canada has on a number of occasions expressed its concerns over the shrinkage of democratic space, not only in general society with regard to the media, opposition political parties and individuals, but with regard to the community which we are proud to represent in Israel’s absence from the country.”
On the Cuban front, he is more optimistic.
“The story from Cuba is a good story,” he says. “Since the years of religious repression and official atheism there has been a relaxation with regards to all religions in Cuba. The Jewish community is approximately 1,500 these days, down from its previous much larger congregation [some 15,000 before the 1959 revolution].
The community that is there, although without rabbis and cantors, is a vibrant community. When I was there last I had a chance to see that the community was unhindered. Two families made aliya while I was there, and it was done without harassment and without interference.”
In an almost unveiled criticism of American policy toward Cuba, Kent cites US sanctions as a major obstacle to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
“The principal problem is the Helms- Burton Act, the American legislation which isolates Cuba, and which is used by the Cuban government on the one hand as a defense from more open domestic politics, and on the other hand by some in Congress to maintain what Canada believes is an outdated [policy]."
Another area where Israel and Canada are cooperating in Latin America is Iran’s involvement. “One of the areas where Canada has worked with Israel,” says Kent, “is in encouraging more active prosecution of justice with regards to the AMIA terrorist bombing in 1994 [the car bombing on the Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead and hundreds wounded] and the destruction of the Israeli embassy in 1992, and of course one of the principal parties of interest is today the minister of defense in Iran [Ahmad Vahidi].
Canada would hope that the International Court of Justice might see itself free in prosecuting more quickly what is almost a two-decades-old pair of terrorist actions.”