Critics say Canada's silence speaks volumes as Israel races towards annexation

Israel now has two prime ministers who have agreed not so much to share power as to operate two parallel administrations. That includes agreeing to disagree on a plan to annex part of the West Bank. If the Trudeau government is pushing back against an annexation plan that would mean the end of the "two-state" solution, it's keeping it quiet.

Trudeau government seems to be taking an approach to Israel quite different from its policy on Crimea

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, his wife Sara, left, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, right, and Crown Prince Moulay Hassan attend ceremonies at the Arc de Triomphe Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 in Paris. (The Associated Press)

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, he spoke by phone with Israeli "alternate" Prime Minister Benny Gantz.

Israel has two prime ministers who loathe each other because that arrangement was the only way to form a halfway-functioning government in a polarized country that staged three elections in 12 months without producing a clear result.

The two PMs have agreed not so much to share power as to operate two parallel administrations at the same time. Many Israeli political observers expect the two men to continue their in-fighting on a different plane.

But there is one long-term project of Netanyahu's that Gantz has promised not to oppose after July 1: the formal annexation by Israel of part of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967 but never recognized as part of Israel by any government.

Trudeau has had separate conversations with both Israeli PMs. But if the Canadian government's anodyne readouts of the calls are accurate, he had exactly the same conversation with both men.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, centrist Blue and White leader and Netanyahu's partner in his new unity government, wear face masks as they talk during a swearing-in ceremony for the new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 17, 2020. (Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office via Reuters)

Canada won't recognize the annexation

The words "annexation," "West Bank" and "occupied territories" do not appear anywhere in the readouts. Although government officials who spoke to CBC News pointed to a passing reference to the "two-state solution", they were unable to say that the prime minister had warned his Israeli counterpart not to proceed with the annexation.

Two officials did tell CBC News there is no chance that Canada will recognize the annexation.

Global Affairs spokesman Adam Austen told CBC News that "Canada is very concerned that Israel moving forward with unilateral annexation would be damaging to peace negotiations and contrary to international law.  This could lead to further insecurity for Israelis and Palestinians at a critical time for peace and stability in the region."

But the Trudeau government, which has largely continued the UN voting pattern of the Harper government rather than those of the Chrétien and Martin governments, does not appear keen on challenging Israel.

In fact, the readout says Canada is seeking closer ties: "Prime Minister Trudeau expressed Canada's continued support for Israel as a friend and ally, and the two leaders discussed ways to continue strengthening their bilateral relationship ..."

No support for annexation in Ottawa

No major Canadian federal party appears to support recognition of annexation. Conservative foreign affairs critic Leona Alleslev told CBC News that "Conservatives continue to believe in the two-state solution, as part of a negotiated settlement to this conflict, as well as the right of Israel to defend itself and secure its borders."

The NDP's Jack Harris pointed out that "other nations, including the U.K., Norway, Ireland and France, have made strong declarations" against annexation.

"Now that the incoming government of Israel has committed to a plan to annex lands in the occupied territories, Canada must speak out and condemn such action," he said in a statement. "It would be a clear violation of international law and the Geneva Convention to which Canada is party."

The Green Party caucus sent a letter to Trudeau earlier this month asking him to apply the same standards to Israel's proposed annexation that his government applied to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

"The attempt by the Netanyahu government to take this action while the world is busy dealing with an unprecedented global public health crisis is reprehensible," said the letter.

Hawks against hawks

The annexation plan has split opinion in Israel. The Israeli peace camp rejects it as the last nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords, but the plan is also opposed by a large part of Israel's hawkish security establishment.

A group of former Israel Defence Forces generals recently warned that "unilateral annexation has the potential to ignite a serious conflagration" and "any partial annexation is likely to set in motion a chain reaction over which Israel will have no control."

But the proposal is popular with the Trump administration, which has encouraged Netanyahu to move forward. In fact the annexation map is being drawn up by a joint U.S.-Israeli "mapping team" that includes U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his adviser Aryeh Lightstone and C. Scott Leith, a senior adviser on the U.S. National Security Council.

Palestinian demonstrators run away from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest against Israeli settlements and U.S. President Donald Trump's Mideast initiative in the West Bank village of Beita on Feb. 28, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/The Associated Press)

Israel's supporters unconvinced

Some Israeli observers have argued President Trump, rather than PM Netanyahu, is driving the annexation schedule in order to have something to show his evangelical supporters in time for the presidential election in November.

But the move may be more popular with American evangelicals than with American Jews.

Strong supporters of Israel, including Republicans like Daniel Pipes and the Democratic Majority for Israel, have come out against it.

"We cannot overstate the long-term damage such a move would have on the U.S.-Israel alliance," Mark Mellman, a longtime strategist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), warned in letters sent to both of Israel's new prime ministers.

'No fuss being made'

The doubts over the wisdom of annexation being felt in Israel and the U.S. may be mirrored in the pro-Israel community in Canada, which hasn't greeted the proposal with any real enthusiasm. CBC News asked the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs for its take on the issue, but it declined to comment.

From the other side of the debate, though, the group Independent Jewish Voices, which opposes the occupation of the West Bank, called the plan "a test to countries like Canada which claim to stand for a rules-based international order, but in reality only do so selectively, whenever it is politically expedient."

IJV's Corey Balsam said merely withholding recognition isn't a good enough response from a government that claims to be a guardian of international law.

"If there's no fuss being made, then Israel will continue annexing land," he told CBC News. "At this point, what Israel requires is punitive measures where it's being deterred. That's where the conversation is globally, especially in Europe, where allies like Ireland and France are exploring avenues to deter Israel. Not just staying silent and refusing to recognize annexation."

Free trade with annexed territory?

Balsam notes that Canada imports dates from Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley that are on the list of lands to be annexed. "The government may say that they won't recognize annexation, but will they modify the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) to exclude those territories from privileged trade status?" he asked. "I highly doubt that". 

CBC News asked officials in Global Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office about that issue but was told that they had no comment on the matter.

Canada currently allows products from illegal West Bank settlements to enter the country duty-free under CIFTA, arguing that Israel and the West Bank are part of a customs union agreed to mutually by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That agreement would no longer exist following annexation.

A farmer harvests wheat near the West Bank city of Jenin on April 24, 2014. (Mohammed Ballas/The Associated Press)

Balsam criticized the statement issued after Trudeau's call to Netanyahu for its talk of "increasing ties, improving relations, adding to trade and collaboration."

"You'd think that if Canada's trying to send a strong message that they're not happy with the direction Israel is going, they would perhaps suggest that type of collaboration is based upon Israel not annexing territory," he said.

Double standard

Michael Lynk, the UN's Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories (who also teaches law at the University of Western Ontario), said the Trudeau government's mild reaction to Israeli annexation plans stand in stark contrast to its response to Russia's unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014.

That provoked a flood of retaliatory measures that have only escalated since.

When she was Canada's foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland repeatedly spoke about the need to defend what she has called "the vital international norm" established after the Second World War that no country should be allowed to alter its borders by force.

"Today's sanctions demonstrate that Canada and the international community are ready to impose costs on Russia when it ignores international law and the rules-based international order," she said last year on the fifth anniversary of the Crimean annexation, as she announced that Canada had increased the number of Russian individuals and organizations facing sanctions for that act to more than 400.

A flag bearing Russian President Vladimir Putin's face waves over a Moscow crowd during the Vesna (Spring) festival commemorating the annexation of Crimea on March 18, 2017. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

Lynk said the Trudeau government appears to be much less interested in upholding international law and the rules-based system when it comes to Israel.

"Russia was expelled from the G8. There was an import and export ban imposed on the goods manufactured in Crimea," he said. "There were a range of sanctions against Russia and individual asset freezes and travel bans were imposed on Russia as well.

"There is no daylight between the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the Israeli annexation of any of the territory it conquered in 1967. For Canada to remain silent … tells me that Canada is applying different standards to situations that are essentially the same.

"It's surprising to me that Canada has lost its voice on this, given its commitment to a rules-based international order."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.