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Baird may cut aid to Palestinians

$300M in jeopardy after UN grants status

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OTTAWA -- The federal government will not cut diplomatic relations with the Palestinians in response to their newly won recognition from the United Nations, but future aid funding could be cut.

Canada's $300 million in aid spending to the Palestinians is under review, as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird readies himself for meetings in Ottawa next week with his senior diplomats from Israel, the West Bank and the UN missions in New York and Geneva.

Baird temporarily recalled the envoys Friday to get their views on the implications of the UN General Assembly vote that granted status to the Palestinians as a non-member observer state.

The Harper government has made it clear, both privately and publicly, the Palestinians would face repercussions for their pursuit of statehood. The two most obvious options are severing diplomatic ties and suspending aid contributions to the Palestinian Authority.

"Canada is deeply disappointed but not surprised by yesterday's result at the United Nations General Assembly," Baird said in a statement. "Canada will now review the full range of its bilateral relationship with the Palestinian Authority."

The Harper government has a track record of using both diplomatic tools. It recently shuttered the embassies of Syria and Iran, sending their diplomats packing and severing ties. One of its first foreign policy acts after winning power six years ago was to freeze its $300-million contribution to the Palestinians after the surprising election win by the political wing of terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza.

Despite Friday's diplomatic recall, sources say Baird isn't planning to tell the Palestinian delegation in Ottawa to abandon its mission. "I can tell you we have no intention at this point of cutting off relations or sending Palestinian diplomats home," said a senior government official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity.

Baird himself echoed that view in a televised interview with the CBC.

But Canada's five-year, $300-million commitment expires early next year and is under review. The aid goes toward strengthening its justice system, private-sector economic development, and health and education.

Said Hamad, the chief Palestinian representative to Canada, issued a statement late Friday that offered an olive branch to Canada, Israel and the other countries that voted against it.

"The Palestinian Liberation Organization fully respects the votes cast by all member states in the General Assembly, irrespective of whether they were in favour of, abstained from, or were cast against the resolution," the statement said. "We will continue to engage all states in order to advance the objective of an independent Palestinian state, living in peace and security side by side with Israel."

Hamad also said the UN recognition "does not delegitimize any other state."

The aftermath of Thursday's historic vote left Canada virtually isolated on the world stage. Canada was joined by Israel and its key ally, the United States, and was among only nine of the UN's 193 member countries to vote against the Palestinians. Forty-one countries abstained. The rest of Canada's voting bloc was rounded out by the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.

Baird is among those who are concerned that the Palestinians will use their new status to file war crimes charges against Israel.

Baird has legitimate concerns about the impact of the Palestinians' elevated status, said foreign policy expert Fen Hampson at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. But he warned against overreacting. "We should be careful about wielding a heavy stick to penalize the Palestinians," he added.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A20

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