Canada dutifully fulfills the US's role towards Israel
May 29, 2011

Canada dutifully fulfills the US's role towards Israel

Canadian policy and rhetoric has been staunchly pro-Israel for a long a time. It is a stance which, especially with Harper at the helm, arguably resulted in Canada's inability to win a security council seat last year. However, despite adopting a position unfavorable by a wide swatch of countries in the UN, Canada has always had one country with which its positions towards Israel were but a sideshow: the US. While in vote after vote the US and Israel would be the sole dissenters, Canada would join a small group of countries that abstained. 

However, at the G8 summit Canada moved from a backbencher supporter of Israel, overshadowed by the US's unwavering support, firmly into the foreground. Canada essentially vetoed any reference to the 1967 borders as a basis for a peace agreement. This is a minor rhetorical difference, but in the context of Obama's recent speech it is significant. With the US conceding the 1967 borders rhetoric, it was left to Canada, and Canada alone, to answer the Israeli lobbying call - literally- and oppose it in the G8. 

In his recent speech on the Middle East, Obama did something that no previous president has done: explicitly reference  the 1967 borders, with land swaps, as a basis for a future Israel/Palestine peace agreement. Previously there was only ever implicit references at best. In response, he was met with enormous criticism from the media, from many politicians and particularly from Benjamin Netanyahu that he would dare to make such an audacious claim. Except, of course, that all negotiations and accords between the parties operate under this tacit assumption that the borders have that underlying basis which is clearly recognized by essentially every informed observer on any side of the debate including but not limited to the overwhelming majorities of heads of state that have commented on the issue outside of the Canadian and American leaders. What is audacious is not that actual claim - the "with land swaps" makes it nearly meaningless anyways - but that an American president would stop taking an entirely unilateral position and actually gave an inch of ground.
It should be noted that while the media has done little but talk about 1967 borders issue, Obama also added several other conditions on the peace process such as the focus on security and a demilitarized Palestinian state (although one may question the appropriateness of the word 'state' without that most basic function of statehood: a military). Almost all other aspects of the speech, other than platitudes, were staunchly supportive of Israel and didn't contain key Palestinian issues of, say, Right of Return. It isn't actually immediately clear which side ought to be able to claim victory in the speech (as it should be if we care about compromising) but if one casually reads the media it might appear as if the only thing Obama said was this audacious attack against Israel.

Shortly after the speech, Harper refused reporters questions to follow suit with Obama and many other previous leader statements and also endorse the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations. This rhetorical choice in and of itself is not particularly important, but when Canada prevented the G8 from endorsing the view it became significant. Traditionally, the US would actively or passively (just through its very presence) prevent such statements from being released. With Obama now endorsing that position, the only country left to oppose the position was Canada. 

In so doing, Canada found itself in position it rarely finds on the world stage: relevance. Unfortunately, that moment was in being a lone dissenter - beyond even the United States - in the unquestioned unilateral support for Israel, unable to explicitly state even the most basic tacit assumption underlying the peace process over the last several decades. Further, the fact that Canada was not acting as an entirely independent actor and faced extensive lobbying on behalf of Israel up to and including direct calls from Netanyahu to Harper before the summit, as reported by Haaretz, tarnishes the idea of Canada's moment of relevance being one entirely of its own making. 

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