11/18/2011 12:08 EST | Updated 01/17/2012 05:12 EST

Why Canada's Views on the Arab-Israeli Conflict Matter

For the most part, UN resolutions never have any direct impact on the strategies of Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers. However, these votes remain important symbols because they are verbal images, telling other international actors 'who' Canada is and what its values are.


On Nov. 10, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird announced that Canada had changed its vote at the United Nations, where every year the General Assembly addresses a package of votes on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arguing that "this series of resolutions against Israel is generally one-sided, unbalanced and does not address the complexities of the issues, nor seeks to address the true actions and responsibilities of all parties," Baird insisted that the vote "does not signal a change in Canada's long-standing policy regarding the Middle East Peace Process," only Canada's "frustration with the current UN process."

For the most part, General Assembly resolutions have no practical impact on the ground. This set of UN resolutions has certainly never had any direct impact on the strategies of Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers.

In addition, Baird is right: There has been almost no real, substantive change in Canadian policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The one exception has been aid to Palestinian governments and non-government entities. In this area, Ottawa has cut down or removed completely financial resources on the argument that they are being used to support violence against Israel and intransigence toward the peace process (though some of it has been renewed).

However, these votes -- and voting in other international organizations -- remain important symbols for states, including Canada. They are verbal images, telling other international actors 'who' Canada is, what its values are, what it stands for on global issues, and the foreign policy priorities it will seek to engage.

These votes are also important to domestic audiences, particularly those ethnic communities and others who are concerned about Canadian policy toward the Middle East. For many, UN voting is assumed to reflect the government's ideas about Israel, the Palestinians, and the conflict. (Just take a look at the reports, statements, and complaints these groups post on their websites regarding Canadian foreign policy and its positions at the UN.) The assumption is that Canada can either be "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestinian"; and what better measure is there other than the casting of ballots in the premier world organization on resolutions directly dealing with the various elements of the conflict?

For many years, Canada's voting reflected the Department of Foreign Affairs' perception of Canada's position within the international system, as well as who it thought its friends were. In practice this meant aligning with most of the European powers, particularly the smaller ones, and others such as New Zealand and Australia, casting the same votes as they did.

The Canadian Jewish and Arab communities have reacted very differently to Canada's positions over time. Apart from Canada's role on the UN Special Committee on Palestine that recommended the creation of a Jewish state (alongside an Arab state) and early voting in support of Israel's existence, Arab groups have largely been content with the government's record at the UN.

In contrast, the Canadian Jewish community has long cited UN voting patterns as a major issue for the community, viewing Canada's votes as an anti-Israel default position since most of these resolutions explicitly criticize Israel without a corresponding censure of Palestinians.

When the Paul Martin government announced in November 2004 that Canada would begin to change its votes on some of the resolutions, the two communities switched their reactions. Building on the assumption that Ottawa's voting reflected both its values and its foreign policy, the Arab community expressed anger and concern, with National Council on Canada-Arab Relations Executive Director Mazen Chouaib arguing that the shift "could send the signal that Canada is abandoning its honest broker's role" in the Middle East. In a 2006 position paper on foreign policy, the Canadian Arab Federation argued that Canada's "recent voting patterns" at the UN were "inconsistent" with Canadian identity as "a fair and effective player on the international stage."

For its part, the Jewish community noted it was an appropriate, if incomplete, change. Canada-Israel Committee CEO Shimon Fogel said that Canada's position provided "moral support" for Israel.

The Stephen Harper government has made no secret of its position. As early as 2006, Harper noted in a speech that Canada's policy toward the Middle East was "guided by our values." He asserted these as "Freedom. Democracy. Human rights. The rule of law. And the uncompromising opposition to terrorism." He referred to Israel in the same speech as "a democratic nation," i.e., close to Canadian values. Not defending Israel against its enemies, he continued, simply wasn't "the Canadian way."

Foreign policy is, therefore, not just a game of states trying to secure themselves from attack, increase their prosperity, and provide for their citizens. It is also an arena for states to assert their identities: who they think they are and who they want others to see them as.

Canadians should not spend too much time trying to figure out what Ottawa's voting on these UN resolutions means for Canada's position and influence in the region. For the most part little has changed and there isn't much evidence that Canada can alter regional dynamics to any degree on its own.

Rather, we should look to these votes as indicators of the government's sense of its Canadian self -- as decided on by the prime minister and foreign minister. On an international conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian one, where Canada casts its ballots does tell us how it perceives the legitimacy and morality of the two sides' positions and arguments.