Terry Milewski: Harper government zigzags on way to a Mideast policy

In Ottawa's polite diplomatic community, the Harper government's handling of the Middle East file is called "puzzling," which, in diplomatese, counts as strong language.

Diplomats in Ottawa question 'puzzling' handling of Middle East file

In Ottawa's polite diplomatic community, the Harper government's handling of the Middle East file is called "puzzling" — which, in diplomatese, counts as strong language.

But, in private, the translation is readily provided by an experienced European ambassador. "Puzzling," he says, means, "bizarre."

Thus was a reporter educated when cornered at a dinner party by a group of foreign diplomats who asked that he explain what the Harper government is up to on the Middle East file.

Um ... we're working on that, was the best the mumbling reporter could do. And, in truth, we're all equally puzzled.

It's not that we don't know that the Harper government is strongly pro-Israel. It's that we don't know what, exactly, that means. Is it defined by Israel's governing Likud party? Sometimes, it seems that way. Sometimes, not.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird flew to New York last week to denounce the UN resolution to grant the Palestinians observer state satus. The resolution passed 138-9. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

The latest zigs and zags followed the recent vote on upgrading the Palestinians' status at the United Nations, where Canada angrily voted no and found itself in a 138-to-9 minority.

Arab ambassadors in Ottawa had predicted that Foreign Minister John Baird would make a show of defiance and would fly down to New York to personally oppose the proposal — and they were right. Baird was defiant, denouncing the UN for supporting the Palestinians' "unilateral action." The vote was "utterly regrettable," he thundered, and Canada would consider "all available steps" in response. Baird immediately summoned his ambassadors in the region to discuss what those steps might be.

Again, diplomats in Ottawa discreetly predicted something drastic. The Palestinians' representative would be booted out! Canada's aid to the Palestinian authority would be cut!

But, this time, they were wrong. Nothing happened. Having taken the world stage to insist that Canada would show its anger ... Baird praised the good work of the Palestinian Authority, decreed that aid would continue as normal and denied that he had any intention of kicking anyone out. And that was it.

No wonder the foreign diplomats were puzzled. Where had the outrage gone? And their fuzzification was only amplified in light of Israel's own response.

The importance of E-1

The world learned that the government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu intended to allow the most provocative program of settlement-building it could possibly contemplate, and one which its main sponsor, the United States, has always opposed.

It concerns a West Bank tract of land known as "E-1," which lies between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. A new settlement on E-1 — if it's ever actually built — would effectively cut the West Bank in two, making the hoped-for two-state solution almost impossible.

The U.S. and many European countries immediately condemned the move and summoned Israel's ambassadors. And Canada?

More puzzlement.

At first, the government said nothing. No ambassador was summoned. Instead, John Baird's spokesman continued to stress disagreement with the Palestinians while avoiding any reference to the new Israeli settlement policy — and even casting it as understandable. The official "readout" from Baird's meeting with his diplomats said this: "Unilateral action on either side is unhelpful. The Palestinian Authority's actions and provocative rhetoric at the UN General Assembly would obviously illicit a response from Israel. Neither is helpful to advance the cause of peace."

OK, they meant "elicit," not "illicit," but that wasn't where the confusion lay. The government seemed to be admitting, reluctantly, that the Israeli government was not perfect, but it could not bring itself to say anything specifically disagreeing with the settlement policy — even though Canadian policy has always been that all Israeli settlements on occupied land are illegal.

John Baird was uncharacteristically silent and "not available" until Wednesday, when he again cast the Israeli response as something provoked by the bad behaviour of the Palestinian Authority: "the PA's action and provocative rhetoric at the United Nations would obviously elicit a response from Israel. Neither is helpful to advance the cause of peace and we do not support either."

Still, no specific disapproval — or even mention — of the new settlement proposal appeared. So — is the Canadian policy on the settlements what it seems to be?

To read the official policy, laid out on the website of the department of Foreign Affairs, it seems very clear. It declares without equivocation that all the settlements — not just the proposed new ones — are illegal in Canada's view. What's more, this includes Israeli settlements on all the lands in East Jerusalem which it has annexed — meaning, it claims they are part of Israel proper.

The stated policy is blunt: "Canada does not recognize Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem."

It goes on to say that, "Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)."  Moreover, it declares, "Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace."

Even so, it's seemingly impossible to get any Canadian government spokesman to use such language in public. Nor, apparently, did Prime Minister Netanyahu hear it from Prime Minister Stephen Harper when they spoke after the UN vote.

On that score, the original readout of the call said nothing of the sort. It merely said that Netanyahu called "to thank Canada for its principled vote at the UN last week." There was no hint of any criticism of the Israeli settlement plan.

What was said on the call?

Later in the week, though, Foreign Minister Baird told the Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson that Harper had, in fact, made clear to Netanyahu directly that the new settlements would impair the search for peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, called Prime Minister Stephen Harper to thank him after Canada voted aginst last week's resolution to grant observer state status for the Palestinians at the UN. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The Palestinians' actions last week were very unhelpful to the cause of peace," said Baird — then added that, "the Israeli response of settlement expansion is very unhelpful to the cause of peace."

"Very unhelpful?" Did the prime minister really say as much to Netanyahu? If so, the prime minister's office seems reluctant to admit it.

Asked specifically "whether or not the PM expressed any concern about the E-1 settlement policy to PM Netanyahu," Harper's director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, replied cryptically: "The primary purpose of the call from PM Netanyahu on Saturday was to thank Canada for its position. ... The PM expressed that unilateral actions — by either side — do not help the peace process. Unilateral action by one party begets unilateral action by the other. And Israel knows Canada's long-standing policy toward settlements."

Hmm. So Harper didn't need to spell out the policy. But ... did that mean that, "no, the PM did not express concern about the E-1 settlement policy specifically, but rather generally expressed his concern about unilateral actions, without mentioning the E-1 issue?"

Again, MacDougall avoided answering directly. "Netanyahu described what Israel did in return for vote and PM offered comment along the lines I described."

That's it. We will probably never know exactly what was said — although, presumably, if Harper wanted people to know that he expressed his disapproval of the settlement plan, then he would not hesitate to say so.

And, if there's a contrast between this muted response to Israeli actions and the heated response to Palestinian ones, that is, no doubt, intentional.

Still, those puzzled diplomats must be forgiven if they're still not sure whether the government really believes what it won't say out loud: that Israeli settlements are "a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace."

That's still the policy. But good luck getting someone to say so.

Post-script: A recent report in Israel's Haaretz newspaper does little to clear up the confusion.

"Netanyahu's entourage said that the conversation between the two did not deal at all with the E-1 question and that Netanyahu 'does not remember' that he spoke with Harper about the settlement issue," the newspaper reported Sunday, under the headline "Canada, settlements, and Netanyahu's memory loss."