Gov. Gen. David Johnston walks fine line on Middle East visit

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, on an official visit to the Middle East, says Canada remains committed to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

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6 years ago
Duration 1:01
David Johnston pays respects as part of Middle East tour

Calling the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict a "very challenging drama," Canada's Governor General, on his first visit to the Middle East, chose his words carefully Wednesday.

David Johnston, as the representative of the Queen, Canada's head of state, is not a political figure, so he and his staff are working hard to avoid the potential political minefield that is the Middle East, where one misspoken word can cause damage quickly.

Johnston is in the middle of an eight-day visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is the first official state visit by a Canadian Governor General to the Middle East.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife Sharon arrive in Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

He met with Israel's president and prime minister and toured the national Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem today. On Tuesday, Johnston visited three holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City, each revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Johnston was dispatched to the Middle East by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to road-test a more balanced Canadian approach to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Governor General's visit is seen as dry run for a trip to the region by Trudeau himself. (The prime minister came to Jerusalem briefly in October to attend the funeral of Israel's former president and prime minister Shimon Peres.)

For years, Palestinian leaders criticized former prime minister Stephen Harper for his close relationship with the Israeli government, and, in particular, right-wing Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

'Traditional approach'

Harper ended Canada's support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian housing, education and medical care across the occupied West Bank and Gaza, amid allegations that the agency was too closely tied to Hamas. The Conservative government opposed increased recognition for the Palestinians at the United Nations. 

Israeli President Rueven Rivlin, left, walks with Gov. Gen. David Johnston during a ceremony at the president's residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning. (Ellen Krosney/CBC)

Trudeau promised a return Canada's "traditional approach" to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, adding that his government "won't hesitate" from criticizing Israel over its settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, something Harper refused to do on a visit to the region in January 2014.

More than 400,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, considered illegal under international law by Canada and most of the international community, although Israel disputes this. Palestinians claim the land as part of a future state.

Johnston, before a meeting with Israel's president Reuven Rivlin Wednesday morning, reiterated Canada's position: "Let me reaffirm Canada's commitment to work with Israelis, Palestinians and other partners to uphold the prospects of a two-state solution, and achieve a just and lasting peace."

In an interview with CBC News in Jerusalem, the Governor General called the Middle East "a very challenging part of the world," adding that Canada is "friends to both the Palestinian Authority and friends of Israel. It's not a matter of one or the other."

Connection to Syria's refugees

Johnston will meet with president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. His visit to the West Bank includes a stop in Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston writes a prayer on a slip of paper, before placing it between the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The Governor General began his visit in Jordan, where he visited the largest camp for Syrian refugees, home to 79,000 people who have fled the civil war.

Johnston said meeting Syrian refugees "touched the heart." He has welcomed hundreds of Syrians as they arrived in Canada, and four of his daughters have helped sponsor Syrian refugees.

"It's so heartening that Canada has responded to that crisis, as it has to others, and has welcomed these people to our country, where they can make new home and find peace for their children and grandchildren," Johnston said Tuesday. 


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.