A brief history of Canada-israel relations
As Canada turns 150 and Israel turns 70 this year, we can take a moment to consider what we’ve learned from the history of Israeli-canadian relations. Two dynamics point to a friendship between the two countries: the longevity of the relationship; and its intense peaks, especially during the nearly decade-long tenure of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government. Amidst all this has been a generally stated commitment to fair-mindedness that tends to characterize Canada’s approach to diplomacy: criticize and praise when each are warranted. Yet what is fair, of course, remains in the eye of the beholder.
*** The friendship between Canada and Israel began, one could say, even before the State of Israel declared its independence. As early as 1947, Canada was one of 11 countries that served on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which was tasked with making recommendations on the future of the area. UN Resolution 181, passed in November 1947, which resulted from UNSCOP’S recommendations, endorsed the idea of partitioning the area into two states. Canada voted in favour of the resolution and Israel declared independence in May 1948. And while Canada officially recognized the State of Israel in May 1949, Israel’s first attempt at gaining UN status failed: on that vote, Canada abstained.
There have been some notable times where Canada has punched above its weight on the global stage when it comes to Israel. The first was during the Suez Crisis of 1956. After foreign minister Lester B. Pearson’s diplomatic efforts bore no fruit, he led the UN’S first large-scale peacekeeping mission to the region. UNEF I, as the contingent was known, oversaw the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops from Egypt. In 1957, Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. And while Canada’s active peace- keeping role has declined over the last two decades, Pearson’s move helped shape Canada’s national identity as a “peacekeeping nation.”
The second time Canada left a significant diplomatic mark was during the multilateral Arab-israeli peace talks that emerged from the 1991 Madrid peace conference. Beginning in 1992, Canada led the working group on refugees. Though when Israel, along with Lebanon and Syria, failed to show up for a round of talks that Canada hosted in May 1992, foreign minister Barbara Mcdougall expressed her displeasure during an address to the Canadian Jewish Congress’s plenary assembly.
Eventually pushed aside by the direct Israeli-palestinian Oslo talks that started in 1993 – where the fate of refugees was considered, along with settlements, final borders and Jerusalem, one of the “final status” issues to be left for subsequent rounds of negotiations – the multilateral working groups stopped meeting by the mid-1990s.
The third time Canada left its mark was a decade-long phase – namely when prime minister Harper became what many considered to be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best friend on the world stage. The 2013 Negev dinner in Toronto honoured Harper for his long-standing support for Israel. “Israel has no greater friend than Canada,” Harper said at the time.
There have also been points of controversy – some where Canada was taken by surprise, others where Israel was. On two occasions – in 1973 and 1997 – Canadian passports were used by Mossad agents for undercover assassinations. In the first instance, a waiter in Norway was murdered in a case of mistaken identity following the Munich Olympics massacre. The second case involved an assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan. In response to the 1997 operation, Canada recalled its ambassador.