One of the bright spots in Paul Martin’s prime ministership, we’re told, is the figure he cuts abroad. He may seem awkward and ill-at-ease at home and weak in his dealings with George W. Bush, but over in Africa, he comes to life.

On his recent trip to devastated regions of Sudan, for instance, Martin looked positively confident as he held forth about the need for the international community to become more activist and involved, as part of a “new multilateralism.”

It’s a message that plays well with Canadians.

We know we’re a rich and privileged people, but we like the image of ourselves as friends of the world’s downtrodden and powerless.

But Martin’s government made a move last week — in the name of the “new multilateralism” — that signalled a shift in the opposite direction, a move that will certainly be felt as a blow by one of the world’s powerless and long-suffering peoples.

Canada quietly reversed a longstanding policy last week when it joined the U.S. and only a few other countries in voting against a couple of U.N. resolutions supporting Palestinian rights.

John Sigler, professor emeritus of political science at Carleton University, argues that this could damage Canada’s ability to act as an honest broker in the Middle East — as it has in the past — just as British Prime Minister Tony Blair is attempting to launch a new peace initiative.

Canada’s U.N. ambassador, Allan Rock, tried to play down the significance of the policy shift, complaining that the U.N. passes too many resolutions about Palestinian rights.

It’s true that the U.N. passes a lot of resolutions highlighting the plight of the Palestinians.

By comparison, there are few resolutions highlighting the suffering of the Israelis, who have clearly been subject to decades of terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants. So things might seem unbalanced in favour of the Palestinians.

But that conclusion would lose sight of the larger picture, and the reality of power in the Middle East and the world.

The Palestinians may be able to point to reams of U.N. resolutions in their favour, but that doesn’t translate into any actual power or actual rights.

The reality is that Palestinians have been living under Israeli military occupation for the past 37 years. They’ve watched for decades as their land in the West Bank has increasingly been taken over by Israeli settlements and carved up by Israeli roads and checkpoints.

This occupation is enforced by the Israeli military, one of the world’s mightiest armies, and ultimately backed by the world’s only superpower, which offers Israel its unwavering support.

It’s still unclear at this point whether Israel would even allow an independent Palestinian state to be established.

So the power balance — in Israel’s favour — is extreme.

The Arab and Muslim nations of the world, with the support of other developing countries, have used their numbers in the U.N. General Assembly to try, in some small way, to redress this imbalance. Being otherwise powerless, they pass resolutions, hoping to at least keep the Palestinian issue alive in world debate.

Canada matters in this debate.

Canada tends to be regarded as a peaceful, decent country, an honest power-broker.

Of course, Canada has always been very sympathetic toward Israel. This is reflected in the fact that we’ve traditionally abstained on many of these U.N. resolutions — which call for the application of international law in the Middle East conflict — on the grounds that the resolutions are too pro-Palestinian and too critical of Israel.

But pressure on Ottawa to tilt even more clearly toward Israel has been coming from a group of influential Liberal MPs, including cabinet ministers Irwin Cotler, Joe Volpe, Jim Peterson and Dr. Carolyn Bennett.

In a brief last year, the MPs urged Ottawa to draw closer to Israel. Among their complaints were those annoying pro-Palestinian U.N. resolutions.

The Martin government, not known for its backbone, wasted little time in capitulating.

But the government is also keen to be seen as fair and even-handed.

It wouldn’t want Canadians to think it was turning its back on a powerless group like the Palestinians.

So it tried to present its policy shift at the U.N. as being aimed at doing more “to foster the mutual respect and trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

At the U.N. last week, Rock insisted Canada’s new position was part of “our efforts to assist Palestinians in their nation-building enterprise.”

So, let’s get this straight: We’re assisting Palestinians with their nation-building enterprise — by voting against recognizing their rights?

Imagine what we might do if we were trying to actually thwart their nation-building enterprise.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...