The brave and pioneering Independent Jewish Voices was the first to cry “Whoa, boy!” at Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s pusillanimous response to Israel’s projected annexation of much of the occupied West Bank. “Given Trudeau’s frankly disappointing record on the Israeli-Palestinian file,” IJV said cynically, “we are relieved to some extent that he even went so far as hinting at concerns over the annexation plan.” But it wasn’t much of a hint.
Maybe Trudeau, the liberal dream, the clean new voice of Canada which followed the long and dark years of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper – who equated even criticism of Israel with antisemitism – is worried about Donald Trump. Or too deep in the toils of Covid-19. But all he’s done since the Benjamin Netanyahu-Benny Gantz revolving-chair premiership in Israel, which promises to gobble up even greater tracts of Arab land for colonisation, is to congratulate the happy pair on their political marriage. And waffle a bit about – ahem – “the rules-based international order” to which Canada is supposedly committed in the Middle East.
International Jewish Voices-Canada – whose courageous defence of human rights in what was Palestine is second to none – has stated quite baldly that Netanyahu’s annexation plan is an attempt to see how far Israel “can push its immunity on the world stage”. Given the EU’s pitiful reaction to the colonial ambitions of Netanyahu and Gantz – much huffing and puffing about labelling products from Jewish settlements and the possibility of cuts in scientific funding – it’s therefore a relief to find that IJV is not alone.
For now along come 58 former Canadian diplomats, ex-ministers and politicians with a rousing letter urging Trudeau “to protect Canada’s good name in the international community by speaking loudly and clearly on this issue”. John Allen, who was Harper’s first ambassador to Israel, is among the signatories and has told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that annexation “is likely to provoke the collapse of the Palestinian Authority” but also represents a threat “to Israel and its future as a Jewish and democratic state”.
The fact that former ambassadors to Israel who served under both Conservative and Liberal Canadian governments have signed the letter – as well as other diplomats who have endured postings in the Middle East – makes this an unprecedented demarche. Despite the Harper interregnum, millions of Canadians still believe that their country should concentrate on peacekeeping, international law and even neutrality in the Middle East.
On taking office, Trudeau swiftly abandoned Harper’s one-sided perspective on the region and put a stop to all Canadian military air operations there. But even the Canadian foreign ministry – now cringingly called “Global Affairs Canada” – could produce only a silky reply to the former diplomats which claimed that the Canadian government was “very concerned that Israel moving forward with unilateral annexation would be damaging to peace negotiations and contrary to international law”.
“Concern” is somewhat less than the Trudeau administration expresses over Russia’s continued annexation of Crimea. Only three months ago, Canada’s foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne marked the sixth anniversary of what it called “this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and of international law”. And he added much condemnation of Russian human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, torture and detentions in the annexed territory – over which Canada has imposed severe sanctions.
Furthermore, suggesting that the unilateral annexation – in other words, further land theft – might be “damaging” to peace negotiations, is preposterous. If one set of negotiators is stealing territory from the other set of negotiators (“unilaterally”, as Canada points out), it means there is no peace to be had. There was a time when Canada, the US and the EU described the building of such settlements on Arab Palestinian land as “unhelpful” to peace – but this latest reply to the ex-diplomats is ridiculous.
Their letter begins in very sober fashion. “We are writing to you as retired Canadian diplomats, proud of Canada’s historical commitment to multilateral institutions and its reputation for supporting the rule of law,” it says. “As you know, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced publicly his intention to ‘annex’ in the coming weeks a significant amount of land that Canada, and the international community, recognise as Occupied Palestinian Territory … Territorial conquest and annexation are notorious for contributing to fateful results: war, political instability, economic ruin, systematic discrimination and human suffering.”
The letter does not go into detail of previous annexations which, to put it mildly, have a pretty dodgy history. The US annexed Texas in 1845, Japan annexed its Japanese “protectorate” in 1910, fascist Italy annexed Ethiopia in 1936 and Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950, Israel annexed the occupied Golan Heights in 1981. There was a time long ago – speak it not now – when the men and women north of the US border feared America might even annex Canada!
It was only CBC which initially publicised the Canadian ex-diplomats’ letter, predictably followed by the spunky left-of-centre Toronto Star, which condemned the annexation in an editorial. Otherwise, the Canadian media has remained pathetically silent. The letter, however, is couched in very legalistic terms – it can hardly be said to be anti-Israeli and certainly not antisemitic. “The unilateral annexation of territory,” it states, “is strictly prohibited under international law. This is a centrepiece of the Charter of the United Nations, San Francisco, 26 June 1945, and has been consolidated by treaties and resolutions, judicial rulings and scholarly writings ever since.”
Corey Balsam, speaking for the IJV, was a little less diplomatic if equally able to quote scholars. “As far as … most Canadians are concerned,” he said, “it has long been reasonable for Canada to impose sanctions on Israel for its gross violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.” And then Mr Balsam quoted the rabbi and scholar Hillel the Elder (born Babylon, died Jerusalem): “As the Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel once said, ‘if not now, when?’”