By RAPHAEL AHREN—
John Baird has no intention of apologizing. The Palestinians would like the Canadian foreign minister to say he’s sorry for his government’s unabashedly pro-Israel stance. They shouldn’t hold their breath.
In fact, Baird is waiting for an apology from Ramallah — not for having his car pelted with eggs and shoes Sunday during his visit there, but for a top Palestinian official’s comparison between Israel and terrorists of the Islamic State.
“People may disagree with our position with respect to Israel, but so be it,” Baird said Tuesday in Tel Aviv, as he wrapped up a three-day visit to the region. “It’s always wise to speak with moral clarity,” he submitted, adding that despite Ottawa’s unflinching friendship with the Jewish state, “we have a pretty good relationship with most of the Arab countries in the region.”
But evidently not so much with the Palestinians, as his visit to Ramallah Sunday underlined. While Palestinian protestors booed, hurled shoes and eggs at Baird and told him he was unwelcome in their land, senior Palestine Liberation Organization official and ex-chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat released a statement denouncing Baird and urging him to ask the Palestinian people for forgiveness for his country’s consistent support for Israel.
“The Palestinian people as well as the rest of the Arab and Muslim countries deserve an apology from the Canadian government for years of systematic attempts at blocking the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own,” Erekat declared. Canada stands “on the wrong side of history” by blindly supporting Israel’s “apartheid policies,” Erekat charged, attacking Baird personally for contributing to alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in his Tel Aviv hotel, Ottawa’s top diplomat made crystal clear he makes no apology for his government’s positions on Israel. Instead, he noted that he is awaiting an apology from Erekat, who earlier this month said Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank was “terrorism” tantamount to that practiced by the Islamic State.
“That speaks volumes,” Baird said of Erekat’s comparison. “I’ll leave it to any fair-minded observer to come to conclusions about him,” he added diplomatically.
At the time, Baird’s spokesperson, Rick Roth, said Erekat’s comments “are offensive and ridiculous, and he should apologize immediately.” Such comparisons undermine efforts to combat the IS terrorists and could “inflame tensions in the region,” Roth stated in Baird’s name.
“We have a fundamental difference of opinion with the Palestinian leadership,” Baird said Tuesday. But he added that he has a “good relationship” with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, despite Ottawa’s opposition to their unilateral efforts to gain statehood recognition without having to negotiate without Israel.
“They know our position. We don’t say one thing to their face and another thing when we go back home. We strongly support a Palestinian state,” said Baird. “We just believe it’s a byproduct of peace negotiations with Israel. The way to accomplish a Palestinian state is dialogue with Israel and not taking unilateral action.”
A Palestinian protester holds a poster with a photo of Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird that reads in Arabic, “You should be ashamed of your biased position towards Israel,” during Baird’s meeting with PA Foreign Minister Riad Maliki, in Ramallah, Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015.
The Palestinians “made a huge mistake” by pressing war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Baird declared Monday. On Tuesday, he reiterated his opposition to the PA’s move, but was reluctant to discuss which steps, if any, his government would take to in response. “We’ve registered our objection and will continue to advocate for them to take a different course,” he said.
Some pro-Israel activists have called on member states to defund the ICC if it doesn’t reject the Palestinians’ charges, but Baird said it was his government’s call and unfitting for him to speculate on such moves. “We’ll take it one step at a time.”
‘Palestinians should understand the importance of the Jewish state’
Canada is one of the few countries that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, but Baird steered clear of endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians need to recognize “Jewish” Israel as well before any peace deal could be signed.
Not wanting to interfere in an Israeli election campaign, Baird said he won’t tell the Palestinians what they should be doing. He did say, however, that “the Palestinians should have an understanding of the Israeli position and the importance of the Jewish state.”
The existence of a country that all Jews can call their home was important in the aftermath of World War II, and remains so in 2015, the 45-year-old foreign minister said. “With the anti-Semitism rising in so many parts of the world it’s probably more important today than it was even a few short years ago that there be a Jewish state where people can seek refuge.”
‘We will judge Iran by the action that it takes, not by its words’
On the topic of Iran, Baird sees mostly eye to eye with Netanyahu, saying that Tehran must not acquire the means to produce a nuclear weapon and condemning the regime for supporting terrorism and for human rights violations. However, he did not echo Netanyahu’s position that Iran must not be allowed to retain a single centrifuge in a future nuclear agreement with world powers, and hinted that Tehran could be allowed to keep a limited number.
“There is no right to enrichment; there is no need for enrichment,” he said. “In a perfect world, that’s what a deal would look like. We don’t live in a perfect world. Could you have a save facing few dozen, few hundred ? That’s one thing. Obviously, the higher the number goes the more concern that would cause Canada.”
Baird suggested that those hoping for rapprochement between Ottawa and Tehran in the wake of progressing nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 powers will probably be disappointed.
“We will judge Iran by the action that it takes, not by its words,” he said, adding that the country’s approach to human rights and its support for terrorism have gotten worse over the last two years.
“Iran could be a stabilizing element in the region — if they gave up their support of terrorism, cleaned up their human rights record and took a different path on the nuclear program. Iran can play a leadership role in the region and the world. But they have to change course.”