Israeli expansion ‘illegal move’, Cannon says
OTTAWA – Israel’s expansion of settlements into Palestinian territory is an "illegal move" that undermines Middle East peace, says Canada’s foreign affairs minister. In an exclusive interview Monday with the Canwest News Service, Lawrence Cannon offered the most pro-Palestinian comment to date from a Conservative government that has been heavily criticized for unduly favouring Israel in its Middle East policy. The Harper Conservatives have been under fire by Canadian Muslim and Arab groups for unfairly favouring Israel’s use of force in its 2006 war against Hamas in Lebanon and this year’s offensive into Gaza. "Canada has never supported the expansion of settlements. We believe that it’s an illegal move, and it’s certainly not helpful to the peace process," Cannon said after a meeting with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Cannon said Canada has supported that view with deeds, to the tune of $300 million in humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority. But Cannon also affirmed Canada’s unwavering support of Israel, and its right to live peacefully alongside its Arab and Muslim neighbours. "We’ve made a strong stand for Israel and for what we believe in, in terms of going forward with peace," said Cannon. The expansion of Israeli settlements was a main topic of discussion. Abbas said Israel’s refusal to stop the spread of settlements was a key impediment to peace in the Middle East, saying he planned to pursue the subject in his meeting in Washington on Thursday with U.S. President Barack Obama. Abbas was making his second visit to Ottawa, but his first with a Conservative government. Cannon shot back at critics of the Conservative government’s Middle East policy, saying there has been no tilt toward Israel. "It’s based on principle. That’s the way this government functions," Cannon told Canwest News Service. "That’s like the people who said, you’re not doing enough in China. I went to China. It was the 15th ministerial visit to China in three years and four months." Asked whether Palestinians viewed Canada’s position as unduly favourable toward Israel, Abbas said he had "high appreciation" for Canada’s support of the peace process and its "generous contributions" to humanitarian aid through the United Nations. Last week on his trip to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed Obama’s request to put an end to expansion of Israeli settlements. Netanyahu said over the weekend that he would allow "natural growth" of the settlements. "We are aware of Mr. Netanyahu’s position and I’m not going to engage on the subject through the media. This is one of the main issues I’ll take with me to Washington. This is one the main issues I discussed with Mr. Cannon," Abbas told reporters through his own translator. "I really believe that we have a good opportunity to advance and make a comprehensive peace in the region. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel." Abbas said he briefed Cannon on the necessity of "freezing all settlement activity, including natural growth." At his earlier press conference with Abbas, Cannon carefully chose his words when asked about the settlements. "Concerning the deployment in other zones, we have always thought that wasn’t a gesture that was favourable to the advancement of peace," Cannon told reporters in French. He did not repeat that remark when he restated his answer in English. Cannon avoided use of the word "settlements" in both official languages. For his part, Abbas said he had no concerns that Canada’s policy unduly favoured Israel, and he was satisfied with Canada’s position on settlements. "As far as our knowledge of Canada’s position, (it) is consistent with international law and human rights. We’re very appreciative that Canada stands with us, shoulder to shoulder, to achieve a two-state solution," Abbas said. "As far as the settlement activity is concerned, Canada has totally approved the roadmap, and in the roadmap there is an obligation on Israel to stop settlement activities, including natural growth." The roadmap towards ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was adopted in 2003 by several parties including the U.S., the European Union and Russia. Harper is to meet Abbas on Tuesday before his departure for Washington. On Monday, Harper discussed the peace process in a telephone call to King Abdullah II of Jordan. Both leaders expressed hope that negotiations could be resumed soon. On a 2007 visit to Ottawa, Abdullah said he was "very, very happy with Canada’s role" in the peace process and said the Harper government had offered "balanced support to our part of the world." In a statement Monday, Harper said he was looking forward to discussing security and economic issues with Abbas. "We continue to work in good faith with President Abbas, whom the Government of Canada recognizes as a legitimate representative of Palestinian interests in the wider Middle East," Harper said. "Canada is committed to the peace process in the Middle East. We continue to support regional leaders who share our commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations."