Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mr. Harper closes the barn door

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When Israel announced on Nov. 30 it intended to dramatically expand the number of settlements in disputed West Bank territory, most of world's nations responded immediately that it was a dangerous and counter-productive move that would undermine the chance for peace in the region.

Then, on Wednesday, undoubtedly after much hand-wringing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed suit with a message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Canada agrees the settlement expansion is a bad idea. That was after Mr. Netanyahu called the prime minister to thank him for his support.

Better late than never is a policy that's acceptable for birthday greetings, but it is not the mark of good diplomacy or of a country with clear and consistent positions on critical issues.

The Israeli announcement on settlements was timed to look like a response to a UN resolution a day earlier recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state in the international body, a move that bolstered its international status, but which also alienated Israel and its closest allies, notably Canada and the United States.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird even flew to New York to deliver Canada's message personally: "We do not believe that unilateral measures taken by one side can be justified by accusations of unilateralism directed at the other," Mr. Baird said.

That logic should have resulted in an immediate condemnation of Israel's settlement gambit, but the minister was preoccupied with the ambassadors he had recalled from the region for consultations about the "next steps" that would be required as a result of Palestine's unilateral move.

The media interpreted Mr. Baird's comments to mean Canada was planning to punish the Palestinians, but he now says -- belatedly, again -- that he meant no such thing.

The fact is, however, Canada overreacted to the UN's decision on Palestine. There's no question the Palestinian Authority's successful application was a provocation because it threatened to undermine the principle that a two-state solution can only be achieved by direct negotiations with Israel.

But Canada went too far by implying it might take actions against the Palestinians, and then not far enough when Israel fulfilled its prophecy and undermined the peace process further.

Canada is back on track, but the government looked clumsy and even belligerent in the process. The government's role now is to restore its credibility and reaffirm its position that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate aspirations for peace and security that must be met.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 A16

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