04/11/2013 12:07 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

John Baird: I Didn't Cross Line By Meeting Israelis In East Jerusalem

OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he did not cross a line by holding a meeting with Israel's justice minister in her East Jerusalem office.

Baird met Tuesday with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni across the Green Line in disputed territory, which the Palestinians and the United Nations consider occupied land.

Baird says where he has coffee with someone is "irrelevant" to the larger discussion of Middle East peace and does not signal a shift in Canadian foreign policy.

"I'm just not interested in getting into the semantic argument about whether you have a meeting with one person on one side of the street (and) it's OK, and you have a meeting on the other side of street, and it's not," he said during a news conference in London, following a meeting of G8 foreign ministers.

"We're focused on trying to have an impact on the difficult and serious challenges, that being security for Israelis, an end to the conflict, and the legitimate aspirations for a state from those in the Palestinian side."

Livni is the Israeli chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

Previous Canadian government ministers have avoided crossing into East Jerusalem with Israeli officials as a matter of principle and practice.

A spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization is quoted in published reports as saying Baird's actions may have set "a very dangerous precedent."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar described the meeting as a misstep that betrayed "a serious lack of understanding about the conflict" in the Middle East.

"Instead of undermining Canada's ability to play a constructive role in building peace, he should have renewed Canada's aid to the Palestinian Authority," Dewar said.

"This would go a long way towards building peace and security in the region."

It's not the first time Baird has challenged the convention. Last year, he went to East Jerusalem to visit holy sites involving Muslims, Jews and Christians. He was accompanied at the time by the Israelis.

Earlier in the current trip, Baird also travelled to the Golan Heights, along the border with Syria, for a security briefing. The region was also seized during the 1967 war.

Baird met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his ministerial counterpart last weekend to discuss security and economic development.

He called the meetings "very productive," but underscored that the Canadian position was far from that of the Palestinians.

"We certainly don't agree on every issue. We have some profound differences of opinion on the way forward, but not on the need to go forward," Baird said on Saturday.

The Palestinian foreign affairs minister didn't disagree with the assessment, but Riyad Al-Maliki said it was good to keep talking.

Palestinians won a historic UN General Assembly vote late last year that granted them status as a non-member observer state, something that Canada the United States opposed.

Meanwhile, Baird condemned North Korea's posturing and threats.

The isolated Communist regime has threatened thermo-nuclear war and is poised to conduct a medium-range missile test, something the minister said cannot be dismissed lightly.

"Obviously when you're dealing with nuclear arms and testing of nuclear arms in the context of such provocative rhetoric I think we should take their comments very seriously," Baird said.

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