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Clark's diplomatic crisis

"Joe Who?" read a newspaper headline when Alberta's Joe Clark claimed the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1976. Three years later, Clark became Canada's youngest prime minister, at age 39, but his minority government lasted just nine months. Forced out as leader in 1983, Clark took on high-profile cabinet posts in foreign affairs and constitutional change. In 1998, he returned to lead the decimated Tories and fight off efforts to unite the right. CBC Archives looks at Joe Clark's life in politics.

It was a remarkably short honeymoon. Just two days after Joe Clark is sworn in as prime minister, he plunges the country into a diplomatic crisis. His government plans to move Canada's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fulfilling a promise Clark made during the election. But Jerusalem is disputed territory between Jews and Palestinians. As the CBC's Brian Stewart reports, Canada could be hurt by Arab and Islamic reaction to Clark's decision.

Clark says the move will back up a peace accord recently signed between Egypt and Israel. But Egypt's ambassador to Canada says there is still much negotiation to come. "This move by Canada is going to put lots of obstacles and spill gas on the existing flames, which is not going to help the peace settlement in the area," says Hassan Fahmy. Canada stands to lose oil imports, international contracts and its credibility as a peacekeeper.
• The city of Jerusalem is a holy place for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Until 1967, it was controlled by Israel (the western half) and Jordan (the eastern half). In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured and annexed the eastern half, but its claim to the territory remained disputed by Palestinians and unrecognized by most of the rest of the world.
• Therefore, Canada's placement of an embassy there - even on the western side - would be seen to be legitimizing Israel's occupation.

• In the middle of the 1979 election campaign, Clark made his promise to move the embassy. According to Warner Troyer's 200 Days: Joe Clark in Power (1980), it came partly at the urging of Ron Atkey, a Progressive Conservative candidate in a tight race in his Toronto riding. Given the riding's high Jewish population - about 23 per cent - Atkey believed the promise would boost his chances of winning.

• While on a world tour two months before the election call, Clark had met with Israeli premier Menachem Begin, who had encouraged the move. But Clark said it would be "inappropriate" for Canada to do anything that might be interpreted as favouring one side or another while peace negotiations were ongoing.

• Clark's promise echoed that of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had made the same pledge for the U.S. embassy in Israel when campaigning three years earlier. But after Carter was elected, he let the issue slide.
• Flora MacDonald, Clark's Minister of External Affairs, made the announcement of the move mere minutes after her swearing-in. But there was wiggle room in her statement, which said it would take place "in a period of time that is containable."

• The Palestine Liberation Organization immediately issued a press release deeming the decision "an act of aggression." In Canada, the Canada-Arab Federation, a lobby group, said it was "a declaration of war on 900 million Muslims."
• Israeli newspapers applauded the move - one headline read "Hail, Canada" - and Begin interrupted a meeting to announce Canada's decision.

• Clark's government was hammered in the press. An editorial in the Globe and Mail said: "Canada would be throwing its modest weight to the support... of the absolutely unyielding position the Begin government has taken towards the future of Jerusalem. Canada could write all the disclaimers it liked into the footnotes. But when you deal in this sort of billboard-sized message, the footnotes don't count."

• Many Arab nations threatened to boycott Canadian goods, which the Toronto Star calculated could cost between 23,000 and 67,500 jobs.
• The dollar also took a beating when the Arab Monetary Fund said it would no longer make deposits in Canadian banks.
• Clark was in a no-win situation. If he stood firm and moved the embassy, he'd face heavy economic and diplomatic fallout. But if he reversed his position, he'd undermine his own authority.

• Eventually, on June 23, Clark announced that he had appointed his old boss, Robert Stanfield, to undertake a fact-finding mission to explore the issue.
• Stanfield filed an interim report in October 1979 in which he suggested the embassy move be abandoned. Clark's government took his advice.
• According to the Globe and Mail, Stanfield's final report in February 1980 "recommended support for a Palestinian homeland."
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: June 6, 1979
Guest(s): Joe Clark, Hassan Fahmy, Flora MacDonald, Mordechai Shalev
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Brian Stewart
Duration: 4:54

Last updated: January 20, 2014

Page consulted on January 20, 2014

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