OTTAWA — Canada is walking a tightrope after American President Donald Trump’s controversial, far-reaching decision Wednesday to recognize contested holy city Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the United States embassy.
The Liberal government has avoided overt criticism despite strong reactions to the U.S. policy reversal ricocheting across the globe.
Palestinian groups decried the decision as reports of protests quickly emerged from Middle East capitals. Many of Canada’s closest allies, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France, were openly critical, while China and Russia publicly worried about instability in the middle east.
The United Nations secretary general said the status of Jerusalem should rather be negotiated within a two-state peace process. “There is no alternative to the two-state solution,” Antonio Guterres said. Heads of churches in the city of Jerusalem itself pleaded that Trump “continue recognizing the international status of Jerusalem. Any sudden changes would cause irreparable harm.”
An overwhelmingly positive reaction came from Israel itself, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauding Trump and saying “there is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.”Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. Sebastian Scheiner / AP
There was little reaction from Canada in the lead-up to Trump’s announcement. Although a press secretary confirmed there would be no change in the longstanding Canadian support for a two-state solution, some wondered why top Canadian representatives weren’t more active in trying to influence the decision.
New Democrats were among them. “This is clearly a decision which is counter-productive,” leader Jagmeet Singh said. Foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière urged Canada to condemn the announcement during question period Wednesday. “This is a devastating day for those who believe in peace, justice and security in the Middle East,” she said in French.
The broader context of the Canada-U.S. relationship inevitably hangs over every public statement Trudeau and his ministers make on Trump’s policies. Talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement are at stalemate on a handful of deal-breaking issues, and speculation has recently ramped up that Trump may seek to unilaterally exit the continental free trade zone.
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is in charge of the NAFTA file, issued a careful statement Wednesday afternoon that did not mention U.S. policy.
‘‘Canada is a steadfast ally and friend of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people. Canada’s longstanding position is that the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
‘‘We are strongly committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel. We call for calm and continue to support the building of conditions necessary for the parties to find a solution.’’Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/File
International development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said a little more frankly, in French, that there is no intention to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv.
Conservatives, usually outspoken in their support for Israel, were conspicuously quiet on the issue Wednesday. They used the Commons question period to prioritize domestic issues, leading with questions about Liberal small business reforms and stalling on providing statements to media.
It was a Conservative government, under Joe Clark, that in October 1979 broke an election promise to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem. Their arguments weren’t so different than those referenced today. Moving from Tel Aviv “could be seen as prejudging negotiations among parties in the Middle East and might in fact work against progress towards a just and lasting peace settlement,” Clark said at the time.
Trump characterized his decision as “a long overdue step to advance the peace process” and a reflection of reality. “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” he said.
In statements to media Wednesday Jewish-Canadian groups praised that logic, asking Trudeau to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem too.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said it was hopeful Canada would “further deepen its ties with Israel and look at acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital.”
B’nai Brith Canada argued recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “will advance the peace process, not obstruct it,” and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said “we have always maintained that Canada should formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
Freeland’s office would not specifically comment on the groups’ statements.
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