January 14, 2014
Several months ago, the Australian government made a quiet policy u-turn with regard to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, withdrawing support for a UN resolution that called for Israel to withdraw its settlements and indicating that it no longer believes Israel is bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, a key piece of international law that has been the legal foundation for international opposition to Israeli settlements since the first ones starting popping up in the West Bank in the early 1970s.
As Stephen Harper makes his first visit to Israel on January 20, the question is whether he will also finally abandon Canada’s longstanding position that the settlements are illegal. Canada’s official policy on the settlements is laid out on the Foreign Affairs web site, a policy that has remained unchanged ever since the days of the previous Liberal government nearly a decade ago:
“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.”
Many would argue that the Harper government abandoned this position long ago, even if its own web site still proclaims the virtues of international law. Indeed, Canada has voted with a small minority of countries to oppose virtually every UN related resolution that criticizes Israeli policies and actions regarding the settlements ever since Harper came to power in 2006. In both word and deed, Prime Minister Harper and a succession of his cabinet ministers have made clear that Israel has Canada’s “unconditional” support, a carte blanche affirmation of the Israeli government’s actions and policies that has not been extended to any other country in the world.
Nevertheless—and one could ask what it is worth—the government will still at times reluctantly express opposition to Israeli settlement expansion. For example, in late 2012 after Israel announced a major settlement expansion, the United States and many other countries expressed their sharp opposition. Canada would only say, after several days of silence, that “unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process,” hardly even a slap on the wrist.
But now, as Harper contemplates stepping down from the leadership before an election next year, his final step in dramatically altering Canada’s Middle East policy may be to dispense altogether with any last opposition to Israeli settlements. Signs have already been coming: When Foreign Affairs minister John Baird visited Jerusalem in April 2013, he set a new precedent by meeting Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem, a first for Canada even though his own government still does not officially acknowledge Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. And more recently, when Israel practically torpedoed the rekindled “peace talks” with the Palestinian Authority by announcing yet another settlement expansion, not a peep was heard from the Canadian government.
While Harper could hardly do more to please Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—he has already earned the title of “Israel’s best friend in the world”—formally dispensing with Canada’s on-the-books policy of applying the Fourth Geneva Convention to the settlements would be the final feather in Harper’s cap as he makes what could be his only visit to Israel as Prime Minister.
For the Israeli government such a move, coupled with Australia’s shift, would be a widening of the crack in the international consensus that the settlements are illegal. Its ultimate prize is to alter the positions of countries that have significant economic ties to Israel, particularly the United States and the European Union members. Especially as the EU moves to increase pressure on the settlements by passing new regulations that make business with settlements more difficult, Canada’s renouncing of its settlements policy would provide new hope to Israel that its long term plan to annex huge swaths of the West Bank to Israel can be achieved.
Prime Minister Harper seems unconcerned that Canada is providing sustenance and support to Israel’s continuing violation of international law, and is in effect undermining that very law. In 2012, when Minister Baird was asked if Canada still held that the settlements violated the Fourth Geneva Convention and are a serious obstacle to peace, as the Foreign Affairs web site states, he refused to answer affirmatively. But Mr. Harper’s visit may answer the question once and for all. If he refuses to raise the settlement issue at all with his Israeli counterpart, we will know: Canada is fully supportive of whatever Israel chooses to do in the West Bank. That is what “unconditional” support means, after all.