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Who determines Canada's Israel policy?

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It has been said by many American commentators critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories that Israel in effect writes U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It is hard to dispute the claim even though on occasion the U.S. does balk at the most outrageous Israeli plans such as its eagerness to bomb Iranian nuclear sites (the U.S. knows it wouldn't stop there and a wider war would almost certainly ensue). If any proof were needed one only has to look at the policies of Barack Obama who, it could be argued, is even more sycophantic towards Israel than George Bush was.

Before he was inaugurated as president, Obama made it clear that the enormous military and civilian aid provided by the U.S. -- some $2.5 billion a year -- was not on the table. In other words, before even developing a policy towards Israel, Obama gave up literally the only leverage he had. And just in case the Israelis were too slow to get the message he followed by allowing Israel to continue building more settlements in the West Bank -- literally the only deal breaker as far as the Palestinians are concerned. It was an unmistakable message: the U.S. has no intention of pressing for a peace deal and the two-state solution, the focus of bargaining for 20 years, is dead.

It is difficult to imagine a country more accepting than the U.S. of any Israeli policy or bad faith but Stephen Harper and his Israel file manager, Jason Kenney, have shown they can outdo the U.S. The Harper government appears to develop its policy vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians not from any consideration of Canadian interests in the Middle East or by any reference to the considerable expertise in DFAIT -- the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. These normal inputs into foreign policy are simply by-passed and the government seems to simply seek the direction of Frank Dimant, executive vice president of Jewish advocacy group B'Nai Brith. Every time Canada announces another policy plank -- that is, an attack on any agency or civil society group that ever criticizes Israel -- Dimant is there to congratulate them.

The latest chapter was revealed recently (following closely on the heels of the attack on Kairos and the elimination of its $7 million development budget) -- the decision by Ottawa to cancel its $15 million (we were the seventh largest donor) in general fund contributions to UNRWA -- the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, alleging strong ties between it and terrorist groups. Like the claim used to justify the cancellation of funding to Kairos (that it was a strong advocate of the boycott of Israel) this claim is vehemently denied by literally everyone close to the situation except, of course, Israel, B'nai Brith and other Israeli lobby groups in Canada. The government's own foreign affairs officials have never made such a claim.

CIDA Minister Bev Oda and (then) Treasury Board president Vic Toews two weeks ago quietly confirmed that Canada's would be directing its $15 million specifically to "food security" instead of supplementing core funding and the general budget of UNRWA.

According to Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME): "UNRWA provides assistance to 4.67 million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East and administers programs in the areas of education, health and other social services in 59 Palestinian refugee camps. The agency operates solely through donations from various organizations and governments. It is currently under severe financial duress due to the increasing number of Palestinian refugees, the deterioration of their socio-economic level, unemployment and food insecurity."

The alleged terrorist group that the UN is "tied" to is Hamas -- the duly elected government in the Gaza Strip. As with the Kairos example, the government presented no evidence of any kind to support its claim.

This put Canada far to the right of even the US which continues to be the second largest funder of UNRWA and flies in the face of the request by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas -- the last real Western hope for a moderate Palestinian leader -- told Canadian parliamentarians in Ottawa last year to continue its funding of UNRWA. According to NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar:

"When we met with Abbas here, he was very straightforward with us. When we asked the classic question, ‘What can Canada do to help?' he said ‘Stick with your commitments, the commitments that you have made, including UNRWA.' He was very specific."

None of this matters to the Harper government. It listens to Frank Dimant who said of the move: "This is certainly a step in the right direction. I believe it's beginning to break out of the mold and the pattern and so I believe it's a very progressive step forward." His organization and other Jewish groups have long lobbied for Canada to end funding to UNWRA. Ironically, people on the ground say that this move will actually have the effect of making Palestinians even more dependent on Hamas which offers similar services to those of UNWRA.

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