There are two leading approaches adopted by the diplomatic and political echelon: According to one, Israel is isolated. At the Herzliya Conference held at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) this week, conference chairman Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild said that Israel’s current diplomatic isolation is the worst it has been in the past four decades – since the Six-Day War. That claim is supported by the opposition party and several senior Foreign Ministry officials.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman blow a fuse when they hear such remarks. The fact that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick, and the Canadian, German, Czech and other foreign ministers are visiting Israel just this week proves there is no such diplomatic isolation, Netanyahu explained.
The prime minister says certain people, out of political interests, refuse to believe that Israel has convinced world leaders they’re on its side. These leaders’ public statements may differ from what they say behind closed doors, but in one-on-one meetings the reality is clear to them regarding Israel, its neighbors and the Palestinians.
Lieberman, for his part, begins every press briefing with journalists with a rundown of all the leaders and representatives with whom he has met. There are dozens, and that is only in one week. At such briefings he has no problem inconveniencing his audience, and reading out the entire list.
The world is with us, he explains, and certainly on the main topics: the Iranian issue, understanding the essence of the negotiations with the Palestinians, developments in the Arab world, assessments of the Israeli economy and how best to deal with threats and challenges. Meet with these diplomats, people in the political echelon suggest, and ask them.
One of the visitors to Israel this week is Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, here for the fourth time. The prime minister from his Conservative Party Stephen Harper is considered one of the closest friends Israel has among world leaders.
Netanyahu returned the favor of Harper’s support in a visit to Canada during his current term, but was forced to cut it short following the Israel Navy’s takeover of the [Gaza-bound Turkish ship] Mavi Marmara and the ensuing crisis over the nine Turks killed in clashes that ensued between Israeli commandos and activists on board. The Canadian foreign minister’s policies are in line with those of his colleagues, and he arrived this week with his finance minister, Jim Flaherty.
Eleven more Canadian ministers, two-thirds of its cabinet, have visited Israel over the past two years. Their support is unreserved. An interview with Baird this week in his Tel Aviv hotel shows just to what extent, at least in Canada, Israel is not isolated.
“Assad must step down”
Baird, 42, tries out a few Hebrew words he’s picked up, and asks if I ever saw the movie “Operation Jonathan” dramatizing the Entebbe operation of 1976, in which a hijacked Sabena plane and its passengers were freed in Uganda by an Israeli commando unit led by the prime minister’s brother, Yoni (Jonathan) Netanyahu. He is also amazed by President Shimon Peres.
“He and I talked about a very respected Canadian cabinet member who was in touch with Peres back in the 1940s. Who else in the world can you have such a discussion with? Perhaps Queen Elizabeth. It’s clear Peres is a giant among men in today’s world, and he’s Israel’s president.”
Besides Peres, Baird managed to meet with Netanyahu and the other senior Israeli officials, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. He visited various sites and attended a gathering convened in his honor by an organization of Canadian Jews in Israel. From here he will continue on to China.
He doesn’t hide the fact that in his talks here and around the world, the Iranian nuclear program comes up first on the agenda. “We are deeply concerned about Iran’s arms development plan. The civil rights situation inside Iran is also disgraceful and deteriorating. Iran’s support of terror, Hamas, Hezbollah, jihad, and the Syrian regime is contemptible and shocking.
“I was at Yad Vashem for the opening of a new Canadian-sponsored educational center. The ceremony took place on the 79th anniversary of Hitler taking over as German chancellor. It was no surprise that he came to power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ 12 years earlier.
“Today we see the consistency in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements and speeches over many years. Now he wants to obtain nuclear weapons. It’s very easy to put one and one together. I believe Iran will use these weapons, and that’s what we all fear. A few years ago I may have only looked at these matters through the prism of what they would do to Israel. But I’ve traveled sufficiently in the Arab world and I can say that the fear of Iran is palpable in most of those countries. So we’re talking about the peace and security of nations in the region, and naturally of the world at large.”
The Canadian foreign minister expresses what sounds like Israel’s position regarding Iran, and it takes some time to accept that this approach is a universal one. “Of all the subjects out there, this is the one that keeps me up at night. Israel does not have a better friend than Canada,” Baird says.
Asked if Canada, a NATO member, would participate in an attack against Iran, he answers evasively: “We will take every diplomatic step possible that has real impact on the Iranian economy. The regime is beginning to show vulnerability and now we must redouble our diplomatic efforts and hurt it. Most of the Iranian people do not support the regime and we have no dispute with them.”
Baird recalls that the Arab Spring essentially began in Iran, but was suppressed using harsh methods such as hanging demonstrators. “The Iranian situation comes up at every meeting with every foreign minister,” Baird says. “Even on my trip to China it will be the central issue. I heard the Chinese foreign minister on a recent visit to the Persian Gulf, and he hinted at a change in Chinese policy toward Iran. I welcome that.”
Is Canada hurt by the support it demonstrates for Israel?
“When it comes to Iran, the world’s silence during the Holocaust won’t happen again. We refuse to be dragged into anti-Israeli measures at the U.N., or into the automatic votes of condemnation against Israel there. We will continue to support Israel. It’s our ally, a liberal democracy where civil rights and the rule of law exist.
“It’s always easier to go with the flow. It’s always more difficult to take a principled stand. Our prime minister explained our position well when he said we don’t act just to be popular. We act according to Canadian values and interests.
“Israel and Canada share many mutual values, and Israel is the only liberal democracy in the region – where people enjoy freedom and wide-ranging liberty. Human rights are honored here, people respoect those who are in someway different from them, and there’s pluralism. In addition, Israel is the country at the forefront of the war against terror, and it deserves recognition for that.”
The Canadian foreign minister stresses that his country’s actions are dictated by a wholehearted belief in certain values. That’s why Canada so strongly supported the changes in Libya. “We led the changes in Libya via the United Nations and took part in some of the NATO bombing. We were guided by the importance of protecting Libyan civilians from the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
“In Syria change is taking place more slowly. Assad must step down. We will act to increase the international sanctions and pressure on his regime. A government’s role is to protect its citizens, not fight them. The Canadian stand is very clear here, like that of the U.S., the European Union and the Arab League.”
Baird praises the changes in Jordan and Morocco. He remains diplomatic when discussing the current events in Egypt. “We are being very careful regarding the reforms there. We were criticized on this matter, but we believe Egyptians have to decide for themselves. Clearly we want to see more freedom and human rights there. I hope there will a change for the better. Mubarak had many weaknesses. But we will withhold judgment and see how Egypt manages to select a government for itself. We are in no rush to judge the new government being established. Obviously, the Israeli fears about whether Egypt will honoring the peace treaty are also clear.”
“Two states, one of them Jewish”
When he discusses the Palestinian issue, Baird once again sounds like he could have voted in this week’s Likud primaries. Asked if he favors two states he replies: “One of them has to be a Jewish state, yes.”
The Canadian minister says that he met a sincere government in Ramallah, but didn’t spare its officials any criticism. “I made clear both to Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad that they have to return to the negotiating table. I support Netanyahu’s position that we have to stop negotiating about negotiating.
“Canada was critical of the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to be recognized as a state at the U.N. We think recognition must be the product of peace negotiations and not unilateral actions that go against previous agreements. At our meeting we were clear about our opposition to that attempt.”
Along with the criticism, Baird has good things to say about the progress the PA has made in many areas: “Fayyad’s government has scored many successes in security matters and establishing government, police and legal institutions. They are progressing and we welcome these achievements. The economic growth there also has been quite impressive.
“I got the impression that Abbas is very straightforward and honest, and this is apparent even when one disagrees with him. We had a positive exchange of ideas, despite our disagreements.
“My diplomatic work is always based on relationships and an attempt to understand the person I’m speaking with. Nonetheless, I think we made the Canadian position clear to the Palestinians.”