Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday (Photo credit: Israeli Government Press Office)
Defying the advice of his diplomatic corps based in Israel, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird did what officials from other countries won't do. That is, meet an Israeli official in East Jerusalem.
During his visit to Israel this week, Baird met with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the Justice Ministry offices which are located in East Jerusalem. Livni was tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oversee the peace process with the Palestinians. Officials say this was the subject of their meeting.
Haaretz Diplomatic Correspondent Barak Ravid who broke the story writes in an article he titled "Canadian FM breaks taboo against meeting Israelis in East Jerusalem":
Most Western countries refuse to let their officials attend meetings at Israeli government offices in East Jerusalem, lest this be viewed as recognizing Israel's annexation of that part of the city.
Nor was that all John Baird did: He also visited an Israeli army outpost in the Golan Heights to view the situation on the Syrian border firsthand and receive an intelligence briefing on Syria's civil war. The Golan is another area many Western countries bar their officials from visiting, lest it be viewed as recognizing Israel's annexation of the heights.
A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that Baird made both visits despite opposition from diplomats at Canada's embassy in Tel Aviv.
A nongovernmental Israeli source involved in Israeli-Canadian relations noted that Baird also violated the East Jerusalem taboo last time he was here, by visiting Jerusalem's Old City with an official Israeli escort. "Baird recognizes the sensitivity, but he wants to set a precedent," this source said.
Baird's move is all the more remarkable as it stands in stark contrast to another foreign affairs chief visiting this week, that is, Secretary of State John Kerry who met with Israeli and Palestinian officials in an effort to try to push a new round of peace talks.
The U.S., Canada, European countries and others do not officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the eastern part of the city. Israel re-united Jerusalem after it captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 war and considers both halves of the city to be part of its eternal capital. The Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, is located in the eastern part of the city.
No country has its embassy in Jerusalem, with most - including the U.S. embassy - located in Tel Aviv, though in 1995 Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act which calls on the administration to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem.
Most visiting dignitaries agree to meet with Israeli government officials whose offices are in eastern Jerusalem only in the western part of town or in Tel Aviv. The prevailing opinion in the international community is that the status of Jerusalem must be decided within the context of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Despite that opinion, many make a point of emphasizing the Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. For example, while they won't meet Israeli officials in East Jerusalem, European foreign ministers often meet Palestinian officials precisely there to make the point that they view East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory.
In 2011, President Barack Obama called for Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders, which would necessitate Israel to relinquish the part of its capital to which the Jewish people have the longest historical ties. King David established the Jewish capital in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago in what is today the eastern part of the city.
Rick Roth who is spokesman for Baird told Haaretz: "As guests, we were pleased to meet our hosts where it was most convenient for them."
"This doesn't change our long-standing position that all final-status issues must be negotiated between the two parties," Roth added.
Baird has repeatedly made clear his government's strong support of Israel, calling the relationship a "special friendship" at a meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday.
"Today, the Jewish People are masters of their own fate, like other nations, in their own sovereign, Jewish, state. Like other nations, Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself," the two said in a joint statement.
In a speech last year, Baird supported Netanyahu's call to resume peace talks - without preconditions. The latest Palestinian demand: that Israel commit to relinquishing 100% of the West Bank - before peace talks even get underway.
"By resisting temptations to apply preconditions to talks and by avoiding measures that would seek to prejudge the outcome of the talks, the Palestinian leadership could immediately take steps toward a more measured, stable transition to statehood," Baird said then.
The Canadian Press quoted Baird voicing his strong commitment to Israel in that speech. "For a country like Canada, the easy thing to do would be simply to go along with anti-Israeli sentiment, to get along with other countries," Baird said.
"It would be easier to pretend that engaging in anti-Israeli rhetoric is being somehow even-handed and to excuse it under the false pretense of being an 'honest broker'," he added.
He said Israel "embodies principles that Canada values and respects. It is a beacon of light in a region that craves freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
He called both physical and rhetorical attacks on Israel "the new anti-Semitism."
Baird also made a point of traveling personally to the UN last November to deliver a speech denouncing the Palestinians' unilateral bid for statehood recognition. He told the UN, "As a result of this body's utterly regrettable decision to abandon policy and principle, we will be considering all available next steps."
He likely made the hearts of his bodyguards skip a beat when he got out of his car to stand in honor of the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust when sirens in Israel wailed for two minutes in their memory Monday morning.
He tweeted this photo:
Canadian Foreign Minister stands with Israel - literally and figuratively (Photo from Twitter.com/HonJohnBaird)
At their meeting, Netanyahu told Baird: "We think that you stand up for the truth, you stand up for moral leadership, and it's much appreciated."
"It's not always easy to stand among the few, but you have I think exemplified that kind of moral and political leadership that resonates with every Israeli and every person of decency in the world, so thank you and welcome," Netanyahu added.