Ex-ministers, ambassadors call on Trudeau to push back against Israeli annexation plan

Ex-ministers, ambassadors call on Trudeau to push back against Israeli annexation plan

Four Chretien-era cabinet ministers are among 58 former Canadian diplomats and politicians who added their names to a letter calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government to show stronger resistance to a proposed Israeli annexation of a large part of the occupied West Bank.

Among the signatories are former ambassadors to Israel who served under both Liberal and Conservative governments, as well as many other diplomats who represented Canada's interests in the Middle East.

"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," the letter begins.

"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, recognize 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."

In an email response to CBC News' request for comment on the letter, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Adam Austen said "Canada remains firmly committed to the goal of achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East. We have long maintained that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties."

He added: "Canada is very concerned that Israel moving forward with unilateral annexation would be damaging to peace negotiations and contrary to international law.  

"This could lead to further insecurity for Israelis and Palestinians at a critical time for peace and stability in the region."

Asked about Canada's position at his daily COVID-19 briefing Tuesday morning, Trudeau said his government was committed to seeing a two-state solution.

"I have highlighted both publicly and directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz the importance of staying away from measures that are unilateral and our deep concerns and disagreement with their proposed policy of annexation," Trudeau said. 

"We think that the path forward is a two-state solution reached to by dialogue between the parties involved and anything that is unilateral action by either side is unhelpful in the cause of peace."

Watch: Trudeau questioned about Israeli government's plan to annex parts of the West Bank

July deadline

Israel is currently under a unity government formed as a compromise between rivals Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, after three elections in one year failed to produce a governing coalition.

Netanyahu and Gantz — the alternate prime minister and defence minister — have developed a complex formula to govern together despite the major policy differences between them.

Gantz has expressed reservations about unilateral annexation, which also has been rejected by a large part of Israel's security establishment — former military generals and senior officers of the Shin Bet internal security service. But he has agreed not to stand in the way of the initiative after July 1, and Netanyahu has continued to say that he will proceed to annex about 30 per cent of the land between Israel's internationally-recognized border and the Jordan River.

Netanyahu told an Israeli newspaper last week that he intends to proceed with his plan despite the opposition, saying it's in the interests of Israel.

Israel, claiming historical and religious links to the land, describes the territories to be annexed as "disputed" rather than occupied, and has implanted a large number of settlements there. It has often argued that Israel needs the Jordan Valley to have more defensible borders in case of war.

"All the plans offered to us in the past included renouncing parts of Israel, withdrawing to the 1967 borders and dividing Jerusalem while allowing refugees to enter Israel," Netanyahu told the news publication Israel Hayom.

"This plan offers the opposite. We are not the ones required to give up [territories], the Palestinians are."

Majdi Mohammed/The Associated Press

In their letter, the former diplomats remind Trudeau that the acquisition of territory through military conquest is illegal, and that the UN Security Council voted on eight occasions between 1967 and 2016 to forbid it in the case of the occupied territories of the West Bank.

"We would like to urge you to publicly acknowledge Canada's commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law by issuing a statement that Canada reaffirms its position in support of all relevant UN resolutions ..." says the letter.

"As you are no doubt aware, many of our allies have already spoken out opposing the Israeli proposal ... As former Canadian diplomats, we urge you to protect Canada's good name in the international community by speaking loudly and clearly on this issue."

'It justifies a protest'

The letter follows a statement from the Prime Minister's Office on annexation that some of the former diplomats said they found weak and non-committal.

The Trudeau government frequently presents itself as a champion of law and a rules-based international order. 

But the letter shows that many within Canada's foreign policy establishment, including former Liberals, aren't confident that the government will take action to uphold international law and UN Security Council resolutions if Israel chooses to go ahead with the annexation plan.

Former Liberal foreign ministers Lloyd Axworthy and André Ouellet signed their names to the statement. So did Chretien-era justice minister Alan Rock, former minister of citizenship and immigration Sergio Marchi and former ambassador to Israel James Bartleman (who was also lieutenant-governor of Ontario), as well as more than two dozen former ambassadors.

Many of the ambassadors — such as Michel de Salaberry, who served as ambassador to Iran, Egypt and Jordan — have years of experience representing Canada in the Middle East.

John Allen was Stephen Harper's first ambassador to Israel, serving from 2006 to 2010. He also signed the letter.

"I think it justifies a protest," he told CBC News.

"Other important countries, especially those in the European Union, have already spoken up quite vociferously about their opposition to annexation. There really hasn't been a statement by the Canadian government, either the prime minister or the minister of foreign affairs."

Allen said annexation is poses a threat not just to peace and the international rule of law, but "also to Israel and its future as a Jewish and democratic state."

He said that if annexation proceeds, it is likely to provoke the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli Embassy reacts

The Trump administration has given a green light for the annexation under a Mideast "peace plan" drawn up by President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

A joint U.S.-Israeli team has been in Israel and the occupied territories working on an annexation map for several weeks.

Ohad Kaynar, chargé d'affaires at the Embassy of Israel in Canada, told CBC News that "the comprehensive U.S. Peace Plan is the only viable peace initiative currently on the table trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has accepted its foundations, despite concessions which will be required on our behalf. However, the Palestinians have rejected it outright, once again closing the door on any option to negotiate a peaceful future.

"While it is dismaying that diplomats would choose to attack Israel rather than try to facilitate dialogue between the two sides — or at the very least urging the Palestinians to return to direct peace negotiations – Israel will nevertheless remain committed to the U.S. peace plan, in hopes that we eventually find a way to resolve our differences."

'Radio silence'

Ferry de Kerchkove was Canada's ambassador to Egypt from 2008 to 2011; he also signed the letter. He said the Trump plan is unlikely to bring peace any closer.

"Traditionally, Canada has been in the forefront of trying to help a real peace process," he told CBC News. Under Trudeau, he said, "there's been radio silence on that issue."

The former diplomat said the Trump-Kushner proposals oblige Canada to step forward to defend a rules-based international system.

"Now we've reached a stage where President Trump has arrogated to himself the right to legislate beyond and over international law and the international community by decreeing what Israel can have and what rump state the Palestinians can have ... it really is a call for the international community to say this is totally unacceptable," he said.

"We think collectively it's time for the prime minister to tell it how it is and take a much fairer approach to the Palestinians and Israel."

De Kerchkove said that the difference between the Trudeau government's reaction to the proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley and its reaction to Russia's annexation of Crimea is "just a sad reality that we have to witness and deplore."