03/18/2015 02:22 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT

Israel Election: Canada Takes Wait-And-See Attitude On Implications

OTTAWA - The Israeli ambassador to Canada says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election statement that he opposes Palestinian statehood should be taken with a "grain of salt."

Envoy Rafael Barak told several dozen people gathered for a post-election discussion in Ottawa that Netanyahu's comment two days before Israelis went to the polls was likely not the true foreign policy of his government.

Netanyahu's comment sent ripples through Washington and European capitals and has implications for Canada, which endorses a two-state solution for the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Harper government took a wait-and-see attitude Wednesday on the foreign policy implications of the Israeli election rhetoric, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson tweeted warm congratulations to Netanyahu.

Based on what Barak had to say in Ottawa, it appeared that approach might have been the best one.

"Take all the statements that you give in an electoral period . . . also with a grain of salt I would say," the ambassador said in reply to a question about whether the two-state solution was still Israeli policy.

Barak suggested that observers pay attention to "what the prime minister will say the day he will present his government to the Knesset. This will be the real policy on that. Things will be more clear than a short statement that was picked up by one newspaper on Sunday evening."

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party won re-election in Israel's national ballot, although it will take some horse-trading to form a government with partners.

In the final hours of a campaign in which the polls had him fighting for his political life, Netanyahu announced that he opposed Palestinian statehood and vowed to continue the construction of settlements.

Shimon Fogel, head Canada's Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said Netanyahu was telling his core constituency what it wanted to hear to keep from losing votes to other, more right-wing parties.

Netanyahu's remark is an affront to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, said Fen Hampson, the head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

And unless Netanyahu tempers his views after he forms a government, Hampson said, "then it really does put Israel on a collision course with Canada."

Although the Harper government has moved closer to Israel than any previous government, Canada still supports a two-state solution and formally opposes the continued construction of Israeli settlements.

Canada has chosen to express its opposition privately to the Israelis, but that might have to change if Netanyahu does not clarify his latest tough talk, Hampson said.

"I would be very surprised if Canada changes its position on the two-state solution," he said. "That and settlements have been cardinal elements of Canadian policy under both Liberals and Conservatives.

"It will be a test of Harper's own friendship with Netanyahu."

In addition to his congratulations, Harper also tweeted that he looks forward to working with the new Israeli government. "Israel has no greater friend than Cda," the post said.

In Washington, the reaction to Netanyahu's remarks was noticeably more icy, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest telling reporters the administration would "evaluate our position going forward."

Kerry's spokeswoman said her boss called Netanyahu to congratulate him, but refused to describe the conversation as warm or friendly.

— with files from The Associated Press

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