Baird set for 'constructive' talks on busy Middle East tour
Two-week tour expected to confront differences with Palestinians, Syrian refugee crisis
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will spend nearly all of Parliament's two-week Easter break in the Middle East, leaving tonight on a tour that will see him confronting a full range of difficult files: from Canada's funding to assist the Palestinian Authority to the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Entering question period on Thursday, Baird told reporters that the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and security concerns with Iran were topping his agenda for the trip, which starts in Jordan but moves on to short stops in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain in its early days.
From there, it's on to Cyprus where he'll meet with the financially-troubled country's foreign minister and participate in a memorial service.
The longest leg of the trip will focus on meetings in Israel and the West Bank with leaders on both sides of the newly-resurrected peace process.
"I look forward to constructive dialogue with all of them," Baird said.
Canada strongly opposed the Palestinians' successful effort in November to win elevated status at the UN, and has warned them against using it to file an international legal complaint against Israel.
Canada also opposes the Palestinian bid to win membership with the United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO.
Palestinian officials have said they would have no choice but to pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court to halt construction of new settlements in what it claims as its territory.
"We obviously had a fundamental difference of opinion with the Palestinian authority," Baird told reporters, with a hint of a smile. "I think they know our views well. But I think it's tremendously important in my responsibilities to engage in dialogue."
Baird 'anxious' to speak to Palestinians
When asked specifically about the settlements, Baird noted only that he would be meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and would be "congratulating him on forming a new government, and for reaching out in concrete ways... to indicate his desire to return to the negotiating table without pre-condition."
Baird called the appointment of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni to negotiate with the Palestinians "a very helpful move and extends an olive branch to the Palestinians."
Livni has a strong relationship with the Palestinian Authority and has a reputation for being dovish in peace negotiations. However, other members of Netanyahu's coalition, including his defence and housing ministers, are sympathetic to the settlers.
Baird said he hoped both sides would return to the table and find a path forward to peace so a two-state solution could take hold.
Baird said he had several meetings in the West Bank scheduled during his time in the region.
But pressed as to whether Canada would be renewing its development aid for the Palestinian Authority, which is about to expire, Baird said Canada had given a lot of support, in partnership with the United States, to develop the Palestinians' capacity for law enforcement and security.
"I think those investments are some of the best investments we've made in this country," Baird said, declining to say whether Canada's five-year, $300 million development aid package would be renewed. "We're going to be in a dialogue to find out what their priorities are."
"Some of the projects have fallen a bit short, which is normal, and we're committed to finishing those," Baird continued. "I'll be wanting to ask obviously President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayed and my counterpart, minister al-Maliki, what their agenda is going forward, whether it's in security, it's in health, education, or elsewhere."
Baird added that he was "anxious" to have those discussions.
Aid for Syria coming?
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney may have previewed an upcoming announcement of Baird's Wednesday, hinting that Canada is likely to contribute more to ongoing humanitarian aid efforts.
Kenney told reporters attending an announcement about the expansion of a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees that Canadian officials are preparing contingency plans for a possible United Nations request to take in people fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria.
But a large-scale resettlement program won't resolve the growing Syrian refugee crisis, Kenney said.
"We're talking about millions of either convention refugees or non-registered de facto refugees or internally displaced persons in Syria," Kenney said.
"And anyone who thinks we can just bring people in by the tens of thousands doesn't understand the complexity of the situation."
Kenney has come under repeated criticism from Syrian-Canadian groups and refugee advocates for failing to provide a concrete strategy to deal with more than a million people have left the country since the two-year-old civil war began.
Critics have complained of delays in processing applications from Syrians already in Canada who have applied to bring their family members to Canada. Kenney says the backlog is expected to be cleared by May.
Kenney said officials from his department were recently in Lebanon and Jordan assessing the situation of Syrians who had fled there. Jordan is where Baird's tour will begin.
When the Syrian conflict forced Canada to close its office in Damascus, the processing of refugee applications for thousands of non-Syrians seeking resettlement in Canada was also affected. That office shutdown saw the number of refugees admitted by Canada last year drop well below targeted numbers.
No desire for 'talkfests' on Iran
On the Iran file, Baird said he was looking for more than just dialogue with his counterparts on this trip.
While saying that he supports American efforts to engage in a negotiation process with Iran and accepts their requests for patience, "we cannot continuously engage in these talkfests with an indefinite timeline," Baird said.
Baird's trip will conclude in London, where he'll attend the G8 foreign ministers meeting on April 10 and 11.
With files from The Canadian Press