OTTAWA — The prime minister’s staunch pro-Israel stance may be winning favour with the Jewish community, but it does not sit well with most Canadians who wrote to Stephen Harper last fall after Canada voted against granting Palestine status as a non-member observer state at the United Nations.
Of the 365 Canadians who wrote to Harper between Nov. 29 and Dec. 31, 2012, after the historic UN vote, the overwhelming majority — 300, 82 per cent — were adamantly opposed to the Conservative government’s position. They used words such as “horrified,” “disgusted,” “saddened,” “ashamed” and “disappointed” to express their feelings, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act.
On Nov. 29, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly — 138 in favour, nine opposed and 41 abstentions — to upgrade Palestine’s status at the UN from “observer” to “non-member observer state.” Canada sided with Israel, the United States and six others in opposing the move. While largely symbolic, the status change would provide “a birth certificate to the reality of the State of Palestine,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said. Israel saw the move as a “shortcut” to Palestinian statehood that would impede negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Canada’s vote against the Palestinian Authority’s bid for recognition did not sit well with many correspondents.
Only 62 people — 17 per cent of letter and email writers — sided with the government’s position. Three emails were neutral, with residents wanting to know why Canada had sided with the minority of countries that had opposed the Palestinian desire for public acknowledgment of its statehood.
A person writing from British Columbia said: “The vote yesterday at the UN has clearly placed Canada among the hawks and imperialists.... There may be some Canadians (mostly Jews and Jewish owned businesses) who support your view on Palestine but I wish to be counted amongst those who do not.” (Names are redacted in the documents to protect privacy).
“[A]s a Canadian and a Jew, I am embarrassed to say that I am a Canadian due to your position taken on the UN vote re: Palestine,” wrote another person, who urged Harper to listen and be a leader rather than a follower.
A person from Saskatchewan, who also professed embarrassment over Canada’s vote, asked: “What is your response to the Israeli resumption of building new settlements?”
Canada refused to condemn Israel’s decision to build 3,000 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — a plan announced a day after the UN General Assembly vote. The White House said the settlements were counterproductive and would make it more difficult to resume negotiations and achieve a two-state solution. Canada, however, stood silent for days.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW
Many Canadians wrote to Stephen Harper last fall after Canada voted against granting Palestine status as a non-member observer state at the United Nations. The following quotes all come from government documents obtained under the Access to Information Act. Names have been redacted to protect privacy but, where possible, we have identified from which province the letter writers came.
The prime minister’s spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, refused to say whether Harper had broached the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call on Dec. 1. On CBC, the following week, Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary for Foreign Minister John Baird, said unilateral action, by either side, would not enhance the peace process.
After the UN vote, Baird also announced that Canada had temporarily recalled its representatives in both Israel and the West Bank for a full review of the bilateral relationship.
A B.C. resident wrote of being “ashamed” of Canada and our “petulant” response to recall our representative in Palestine for discussions after we didn’t get our way.
“In early November, I was in Palestine with a group with focus on International Law and Human Rights. … and I [was] appalled by the treatment we were shown of the Palestinians by Israelis,” the letter writer said.
In a speech to the General Assembly on Nov. 29, Baird said Canada strongly opposed the resolution because it was a unilateral action that would hamper negotiations toward a two-state solution.
“This resolution will not advance the cause of peace or spur a return to negotiations. Will the Palestinian people be better off as a result? No. On the contrary, this unilateral step will harden positions and raise unrealistic expectations while doing nothing to improve the lives of the Palestinian people,” Baird said.
“You have mentioned that you believe in two state solution, then why oppose statehood for Palestinians?” one person emailed the evening after Baird spoke. “This is one of the pillars of the solution is it not? It will not invalidate any peace negotiations.”
Some residents, however, wrote to say Harper and Baird’s actions had made them proud to be Canadian.
“I know that many people are complaining, but I really think that good people are happy about what Baird did. I feel that everyone who really knows what is going on in the Middle East is rejoicing with the way we voted. And thumbs up to the Czech Republic, the U.S. and the others that voted no,” a resident of Alberta said.
One person sent a handwritten note on flowery stationery thanking Harper for “taking a stand” and voting no. “Please continue to stand with Israel,” the person wrote, underlining each word.
“The UN is a useless body and consists of terrorists and dictators. It has become a battle front for the countries versus Israel. Thank you for seeing who these organizations are and for what they stand,” wrote a resident from Quebec.
Several urged Harper to stop sending any aid to the Palestinian territories.
“[C]ancel all aid to any country except Israel...including those Nations that get our Aid but supported this resolution. CANCEL IT ALL !! These states must learn to stop this crap,” wrote one person in an email.
The bulk of the messages, however, were firmly opposed to Harper’s decision. “I am a long time support[er] of the Conservative Government. I was very happy on your re-election,” one person said. “But I am concerned at the recent Canadian stand on opposing vote for Palestinian[s]...Its embarrassing to see we stand in opposition to the righteous path.”
Many emails sent in the days leading up to the vote urged Harper to support Palestinian statehood.
“Tomorrow is the vote on this & I certainly hope you and your cabinet have a rethink,” wrote one person from B.C.
“Please don’t embarrass us anymore,” wrote another person whose letter was heavily redacted.
An Access to Information co-ordinator, citing restrictions on the release of personal information, said personal insults directed at Harper, Baird or other members of cabinet had been blacked out.
“[Blank] and your Government are an International Disgrace and I wait with eager anticipation to [blank],” reads one person’s redacted letter.
Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov said she believes the Conservatives’ “unwavering loyalty” to Israel, which has deepened over time, is based on a belief in the “rightness” of Israel’s mission, not on a partisan calculation.
The Conservative government honestly believes that recognizing Palestinian statehood at the UN is inappropriate and unhelpful unilateral action, she said. The Tories’ attitude toward Israel has little to do with courting the Jewish vote and more to do with sharing the same world view, Sucharov added.
“If it were about numbers, the Jewish community in Canada is much smaller than other communities that would have natural allegiances to the Palestinian cause,” she said.
But for a few seats in Toronto and Montreal, where the Jewish vote is concentrated, Sucharov said, the Conservatives’ pro-Israeli positions could actually hurt the party electorally with the larger but dispersed Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities, who believe Canada has lost its status as an honest broker.
Several letter writers said public opinion polls suggest that Canadians strongly favour support for Palestine. Several recent polls, however, indicate that Canadians want a middle-of-the-road policy.
A CBC/Nanos survey in December suggested that 48 per cent of Canadians want a Middle East policy that favours neither Israel nor Palestine.
An Environics survey in 2011 had similar results. Half of those surveyed, 51 per cent, said they believed Canada’s policy in the Middle East struck the right balance, while 23 per cent — a five per cent rise from 2008 — said the federal government’s policy was “too pro-Israel.” Those who felt Ottawa was too close with the Jewish state tended to be educated (with a university degree) or from Quebec.
Of the nine French-language letters sent to Harper’s office in late November and December on this issue, six were strongly opposed to the prime minister’s position.
The results may not be surprising. According to a BBC survey in 2012, most Canadians — 59 per cent — said they viewed Israel in a negative light, with only 25 per cent saying they viewed Israel’s influence as being mainly positive.
Ottawa seems to pride itself on the fact it has never surveyed Canadians for their thoughts on the Middle East. The Privy Council Office — the prime minister’s department — and Foreign Affairs both confirmed Monday that they have never polled on the question of Israel and Palestine.
Baird told reporters last month during a visit in the West Bank that Ottawa does not make foreign policy decisions “based on public opinion polls.”
“We don’t take positions ... based on what is popular. We make decisions based on what we think is right and wrong,” he said in April.
In 2006, the federal government came close to polling on the issue when it asked Canadians for their thoughts on the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Two-thirds said they were neutral, according to the data compiled by Ipsos, while 16 per cent sided with Israel and 16 per cent said they were sympathetic to Lebanon. As in previous surveys, people with university degrees were less likely to support Israel.
“Less than one percent of Canadians side with Hezbollah,” the report also stated.
Also on HuffPost:
On Nov. 29, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly — 138 in favour, nine opposed and 41 abstentions — to upgrade Palestine’s status at the UN from “observer” to “non-member observer state.” Photo: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, centre, and the delegation celebrate after the United Nations General Assembly vote
While largely symbolic, the status change would provide “a birth certificate to the reality of the State of Palestine,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said. Here how some of the larger countries voted:
<em>Caption: Bassam al-Salhi (L), the general secretary of the Palestinian People's Party, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (R) during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry building in Beijing on November 23, 2012. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made the announcement before parliament. "In any case, it's only through negotiations – that we ask for without conditions and immediately between the two sides – that we will be able to reach the realization of a Palestinian state," Fabius said Tuesday. <em>Caption: French president Francois Hollande (L) welcomes Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for a meeting at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris on July 6, 2012. (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Martin Weiss, Austria's foreign ministry spokesman, said the country decided to vote for the resolution after it became clear there would be no common EU position. <em>Caption: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) shakes hands with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on November 28, 2011 in Vienna. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
<em>Caption: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) after a joint press statement in New Delhi on September 11, 2012. (RAVEENDRAN/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Russia supported Palestinian membership in the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the country "believes that the Palestinians have the right for such a move" but it added "we hope that the Palestinian leadership has well calculated possible consequences of such action." <em>In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO) Mahmoud Abbas (R), the President of Palestinian authority and Vladimir Putin, the President of Russian Federation, speak at the Presidential Palace, on June 26, 2012 in Bethlehem, West Bank. (PPO via Getty Images)</em>
<em>Caption: RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - JANUARY 12: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere during a meeting on January 12, 2012 in Ramallah, West Bank. (Mohamad Torokman - Pool/Getty Images)</em>
<em>Caption: In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian President's Office (PPO), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt on September 26, 2012 in New York City. (Thaer Ghanaim-PPO/Getty Images)</em>
The Swiss government called a change in status "both constructive and pragmatic." <em>Caption: Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (R) speaks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during an official visit to Switzerland on November 15, 2012 in Bern. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
<em>Caption: Madrid, SPAIN: Leader of opposition Popular Party (Partido Popular) Mariano Rajoy (R) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during his overnight trip to Madrid, 27 January 2007. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
United States: AGAINST
<em>Caption: In this handout provided by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) on November 21, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images)</em>
Canada is a staunch ally of Israel. Rick Roth, a spokesman for Canada's foreign minister, said any two-state solution must be negotiated and mutually agreed upon by both states. Roth said any unilateral action is ultimately unhelpful. <em>Caption: In this handout photo from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper March 2, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)</em>
It's "very certain that Germany will not vote for such a resolution," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert. <em>Caption: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of the Chancellery in Berlin April 7, 2011. (FABRIZIO BENSCH/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
"Lasting peace in the region can only be reached if Israel and the Palestinians return to the negotiating table to reach a final agreement over a two-state solution," the foreign minister said in a letter sent to parliament. <em>Caption: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) listens to Dutch Queen Beatrix during a meeting at Huis ten Bosch Royal Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands, on January 19, 2012. (ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
The foreign secretary said Britain could support the measure only if there were a clear commitment by the Palestinians to return immediately and unconditionally to negotiations with Israel. "While there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments," said William Hague. <em>Caption: Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at a Range Rover dealership in Berlin October 23, 2012 to unveil a new Range Rover model. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her government is divided on the issue, but Gillard told Parliament "bipartisan policy across the major parties in this parliament (is) to support Israel, to support peace in the Middle East, to support two states in the Middle East." <em>Caption: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the naming of Queen Elizabeth Terrace at Parkes Place on November 10, 2012 in Canberra, Australia. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)</em>