Canada casts controversial vote at UN for Palestinian self-determination

OTTAWA — Canada has affirmed it does not share the Trump administration’s view that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are legal under international law, casting a vote supporting Palestinian self-determination at the United Nations.

A senior government official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the Middle East file, says Canada deemed it necessary to change its voting habits at the UN this week and support a resolution that Israel opposed.

On Monday, the United States reversed four decades of foreign policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. is no longer guided by a 1978 State Department legal opinion that the West Bank settlements of Israeli civilians were “inconsistent” with international law.

The U.S. decision pleased Israel but other countries and the Palestinians said it could undermine the prospects for peace, while it revived some Canadian domestic political mud-slinging.

Throughout it all, Canada’s position remains unchanged: the settlements are illegal, a position that has been affirmed by successive Liberal, Conservative and Progressive Conservative governments.

On Tuesday, Canada voted to support the motion along with 163 countries at the UN General Assembly, while five countries — the U.S., Israel, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Nauru — voted against and nine others abstained.

The Palestinian delegation to Ottawa praised Canada for taking a “remarkable position” that shouldn’t surprise anyone “considering all the values and principles Canada represents.”

In recent years, Canada has come to Israel’s defence at the UN to resist an informal annual tradition that has become known in some circles as “Israel bashing.” Starting with former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, Canada shifted its position on the nearly two dozen anti-Israel votes that would come before General Assembly each year: instead of always abstaining, Canada began voting against more and more of them.

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper ramped up the “no” votes, in conjunction with Israel and the U.S., while adding full-throated public support for Israel and often criticizing the UN as a bastion of hypocritical dictators.

The Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have continued that policy — minus the anti-UN rhetoric, as Canada seeks a temporary seat on its most powerful body, the Security Council, in a vote next year.

New Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne cautioned against reading too much into the move.

“Our friendship with Israel is strong, we’ll always be there … but there are some times where, like yesterday, Canada (has) to vote with respect to its principles on this issue,” he told reporters outside Rideau Hall, where he had just been sworn in.

He added that the government has been in touch with members of Canada’s Jewish community to explain the government’s reasoning.

“We will continue to work with our colleagues and we have worked with the community to explain the reason for that vote.”

The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has presented new challenges for Canada’s handling of Israel-related issues at the UN. When Trump the decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a city that has special significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians — the UN voted in December 2017 to rebuke him.

Caught between a rock and hard place — Canada was renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and didn’t want to provoke Trump — the Trudeau government orchestrated a carefully considered abstention in that vote, joining 34 other countries.

Then came Monday’s announcement by Pompeo on the settlements, which set the stage for the voting at the UN, and Canada’s shift on the Palestinian self-determination motion.

Canadian Jewish and Israeli-affairs advocacy groups criticized the government’s shift.

“In our view, the core of the conflict remains the refusal by Palestinian leaders and their supporters to recognize the Jewish People’s indigenous ties to the Land of Israel. This is what the UN — and Canada — should be condemning,” said B’Nai Brith Canada. “We call on Canada and the rest of the international community to press the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table, and to stop harmful practices such as rewarding terrorists and their families.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on Twitter that it marked a return to the “shameful Israel-bashing that regularly occurs at the UN.”

Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos gave voice on Twitter to a common refrain from the Harper years: “The Trudeau government once again shows in practice they are no friends of the State of Israel. They side with the UN, a club full of dictators and despots.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2019.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the vote at the UN General Assembly took place Monday.

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