Baird not his usual blunt self on Israel’s settlement plan

What is Canada’s policy on settlement expansions? John Geddes put the question to the foreign minister’s aides

Nailing down the government of Canada’s stance on Israel’s controversial move to expand settlements in a contested zone east of Jerusalem is being made difficult by the foreign affair’s minister’s cagey communications strategy.

John Baird was his usual bluntly outspoken self last week when it came to denouncing Palestinian efforts to secure enhanced status at the United Nations. But Baird’s aides ask us to read between the lines and decode diplomatic language to discern his actual position on the related settlement issue.

Last Friday, White House officials decried Israel’s move to build 3,000 new housing units in the disputed area, which is claimed by the Palestinians as part of the West Bank, as “counterproductive.” Soon after, I asked Baird’s office if the Canadian government shares the U.S. concern and, if so, has that point been conveyed to the Israeli government.

An emailed response from Rick Roth, Baird’s press secretary, said the foreign minister addressed the settlements issue twice in his speech last Thursday to the UN general assembly, first when he said, “Canada has long opposed unilateral actions by either side,” and then when he repeated, “Any unilateral action, from either side… is ultimately unhelpful.”

Of course, these references rely on the listener to surmise that Canada might count the settlement expansions as among those unspecified unilateral actions. By contrast, Baird didn’t mince words in slamming the Palestinian bid for upgraded UN status as a non-member observer state.

Why is the Canadian government’s opposition to the Palestinian gambit at the UN so overt, but its objections to the settlement expansion only implied?

In an attempt to clarify the policy, I asked Roth today in an email, among other questions, if I would be correct in reporting that the Canadian government’s position is that Israel’s move to expand the settlements is, to echo the language from Baird’s speech, an “unhelpful, unilateral action.”

“To be clear,” Roth emailed back, “you can attribute the following to me: we believe that unilateral actions on either side do not advance the peace process.” I don’t see how that statement is clear at all, as long as Baird declines to say that Israel’s settlement expansion plan is among the unilateral actions Canada opposes.