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At a press briefing on Friday in advance of Prime Minister Harper’s trip to the Middle East, the PM’s chief spokesperson, Jason MacDonald, certainly earned his keep.

Journalists kept asking MacDonald about the inconsistency between the Prime Minister’s public statements on Israel and Canada’s official position on Israeli settlements, which is laid out on the Foreign Affairs website.

Somehow, MacDonald stayed on his message track, which is that “unilateral actions are not conducive to negotiations…”

He never strayed, never budged an inch, no matter how hard the assembled reporters tried to get him to be more precise.

For instance, does the Canadian Prime Minister consider the construction of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem — while the peace talks are happening — to be an example of a “unilateral action?”

Jason MacDonald would not say. He kept repeating the line about “unilateral action” and refused, as does his boss, to even utter the word “settlements.”

Well, in case some mysterious gremlins make the “official” Foreign Affairs position disappear from cyberspace before the Prime Minister and his extensive entourage land at Ben Gurion Airport this weekend, here it is, word for word:

Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.

Canada believes that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority must fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law which is key to ensuring the protection of civilians, and can contribute to the creation of a climate conducive to achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement.

International law born out of the ashes of WWll

The Fourth Geneva Convention is one of a series of international agreements on the conduct of war and the rights of civilians, signed after WWll.

One of those agreements was the Convention on Refugees, which was in large measure motivated by the experience of Jews fleeing the Nazis, denied refuge and turned back to near certain death.

The Fourth Convention was also motivated by horrid events in the war against Hitler, in this case the sort of collective punishments, enslavements and other violent abuse the Nazis committed on civilian populations in occupied countries.

The Convention outlines both the obligations of occupying powers and the rights of non-combatants in occupied territories.

Article 49 of the Fourth Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

The United Nations has deemed that Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights are covered by the Fourth Convention. Israeli settlements in those zones clearly constitute “transfer” of some of Israel’s own civilian population into occupied territory. And Canada, formally and officially, agrees with the United Nations, but you won’t get Stephen Harper to say so.

There are intimations from inside the bureaucracy that, in private meetings with Israel’s Prime Minister, the Canadian Prime Minister is less circumspect than in his public statements. They say that, privately, Harper has made it clear that Canada does not approve of the settlements and believes them to be an impediment to peace.

We may never know; minutes of such meetings are not made public.

Winning seats in urban Canada is the name of the game

But there is a reason for the Conservatives’ deliberate ambiguity on the settlements and it has little to do with sound foreign policy. It’s all about electoral politics.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney is quoted by Postmedia on Friday saying the government’s support of Israel is motivated by a concern for rising anti-Semitism, not votes in some key ridings.

Oddly this concern does not extend to some European countries where virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism are on the rise, notably Hungary. Kenney happily anointed Hungary with the status of “safe country,” despite the anguished concerns of leaders of the world’s Jewish community, such as Ronald Lauder and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

Kenney wants to keep the persecuted Roma out of Canada and facilitate the trade agreement with the European Union. He hopes the Canadian Jewish community will take little note of Canada’s government shrugging off a revival of old-fashioned anti-Semitism in such countries as Hungary. Kenney and his boss are banking on their ardent support of Israel to gain needed urban voters, and so far it’s working.

In 2011, in Toronto’s York Centre, a rather indifferent Conservative candidate, with the thinnest of thin résumés, Mark Adler, managed to defeat hockey Hall-of-Famer and Liberal champion of a national daycare program, Ken Dryden. The riding’s Jewish voters moved quite significantly toward the Conservatives in that case.

Earlier, Peter Kent — with admittedly, a considerably more impressive CV than Adler’s — leveraged the Conservatives’ ultra pro-Israel stance into a victory in suburban Toronto’s Thornhill, with its significant Jewish vote, giving the then minority Conservatives their first beachhead into Canada’s largest metropolis.  

Also in 2011, Jewish voters helped propel Conservative Joe Oliver over longtime Liberal MP Joe Volpe in Toronto’s very urban Eglinton-Lawrence. Oliver is — again, unlike Adler — a person of some considerable substance and as Energy Minister has worked tirelessly to promote the Harper government’s main economic agenda.

Finally, in 2011, the Conservatives almost stole Pierre Trudeau’s onetime seat, Montreal’s Mount Royal, from the Liberals, with another lightweight, Adler-esque candidate: municipal ward heeler Saulie Zajdel.

In this case, the Liberal sitting member was a genuine eminence of Canada’s Jewish community, Irwin Cotler, who had been head of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a fearless advocate for Soviet Jewry. But Cotler only won by the skin of his teeth, and only due to the votes of members of other ethnic groups in this very multicultural riding.

This writer was standing next to Jason Kenney at Ottawa’s airport, a few months before the 2011 election. The Minister was loudly telling someone at the other end of his cell phone call about the Conservatives’ excellent chances in a number of urban ridings — all because of the Jewish vote.

So much for the idea that what motivates the Conservative stance on Israel is not politics, but concern about rising anti-semitism. 

When you consider the political stakes, it makes sense for the Conservatives to speak in doubletalk on Israel’s settlements. Do not expect any greater clarity from Stephen Harper during his current trip to the region. 

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...