To understand why, I think it’s worth reviewing the Canadian government’s general position.
It can be found on the Global Affairs Canada website under the title: “Canadian policy on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
And while partisans on both sides will inevitably find fault with the details, as an analyst of Canadian foreign policy, I find them to be quite reasonable.
To begin, Canada “supports Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries and recognizes Israel’s right to assure its own security.”
More specifically, “Israel has a right under international law to take the necessary measures, in accordance with human rights and international humanitarian law, to protect the security of its citizens from attacks by terrorist groups.”
At the same time, “Canada recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state, as part of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace settlement.”
Ottawa maintains that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be settled peaceably, and that the final agreement should based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973).
Canada doesn’t “recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem,” nor does it recognize “permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967.”
(There is, in other words, a difference between military occupation, which can be acceptable under certain circumstances, and the construction of permanent settlements and security barriers on occupied land; the latter violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and are therefore illegal under international law.)
Finally, Ottawa has listed Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as terrorist groups. As a result, it does not recognize them as legitimate international actors.
What does all of this mean?
Based on recent media coverage, while an unusual number of individual Canadians appear to claim a personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Canada’s fundamental national interests are less implicated in the recent violence than they are in the long-term impact of the ongoing dispute on the international order.
Canada prospers within a peaceful and stable world where conflict is settled through diplomacy. We are at a disadvantage when state and non-state actors pursue their objectives by force (and at an even greater disadvantage when they do so illegally).
The Canadian government therefore typically reserves its active engagement in military strife for (1) conflicts that affect this country directly; (2) conflicts that implicate our NORAD, NATO, or Five Eyes allies directly; and (3) conflicts that offer the possibility of non-violent resolution when all of the actors involved are open to, and perhaps even actively seek out, Ottawa’s involvement.
Otherwise, Canadian interests dictate that Ottawa remain at the margins since (1) it will generally be powerless to improve the situation; and (2) any expression of criticism, however justifiable, will more likely increase the tension than deflate it.
However viscerally the Israeli-Palestinian conflict implicates individual Canadians, it does not threaten this country directly.
And while Canada has long been a supporter of the State of Israel, we are not treaty-bound to engage when it is at war.
Finally, since there is no reason to believe that either side in the conflict is seriously contemplating a long-term cessation of hostilities, there is little value to be added by Canadian diplomats right now.
It seems to me that it is unlikely that the Trudeau government approves of what may have been Israeli provocations in Jerusalem, but it almost certainly also recognizes that when a country faces a barrage of indiscriminate rocket fire from a terrorist group, it is all but obligated to respond with force.
In this context, Ottawa’s relatively limited public response to the recent events in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is consistent with the national interest.
Of all of the pieces that I have read on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last couple of weeks, I found this one in Foreign Policy magazine, written by the global affairs journalist Elise Labott, to be particularly helpful.
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