When I used to travel in the Middle East with my American and European friends several years back, we often pretended to be Canadian citizens. Canada and the Canadians were largely viewed as moderates and neutral towards most of the hotly contested issues in the region. When asked where we are from, our answer was most of the time we are from Canada. We used to answer the question this way to avoid getting into unnecessary verbal arguments about American and European foreign policies towards the Arab Israeli conflict and Palestinian conditions under Israeli occupation. I have to admit that posing as Canadians used to make our travel much easier and more pleasant. We were often invited to people’s homes for coffee and food. We love Canada and the Canadians, people used to say to us.
The Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird seems to work hard towards changing Canada’s public image among the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular. His meeting with the Justice Minister of Israel Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem last Tuesday was a major step in this direction. East Jerusalem is considered by the United Nations and the Palestinians as an occupied city. All foreign diplomats refrained from meeting Israeli officials in East Jerusalem since its occupation and annexation by Israel in 1967. His meeting with Livni in East Jerusalem will cause Canada and the Canadians’ image in the Middle East an unnecessary harm. Canada’s best interests in the Middle East are better served by maintaining the image of neutrality and sparing itself from getting entangled in the web of many conflicting interests and political factions. At least it will spare the Canadians living or travelling in the region from becoming targets of revenge against the new Canadian role which John Baird seem to be pushing.
The Palestinian authority has officially condemned the Canadian Foreign Minister with Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem, considering it a deviation from the Western diplomatic practice and a violation of international law. This position was made clear in a letter the Palestinian Authority sent to the Canadian Foreign Ministry. The Palestinian authority in Ramallah summoned the Canadian envoy last Friday to hand her the letter of Palestinian protest. It is important to point out that Baird’s meeting with Livni has received a lot of bad publicity in the Arabic press across the region. No doubt that it was a very bad move coming from a Canadian official who does not seem to understand the sensitivity of the status of East Jerusalem to the Arabs and Muslims around the world.