Baird, Flaherty celebrate Canada-Israel friendship

John Baird lays a wreath at Yad Vashem  [Mati Milstein photo]

JERUSALEM — It was an evening of mutual gratitude.

At a gala reception held on Feb. 1, visiting Canadian parliamentarians spoke of Canada’s passionate bond with this little nation in the Middle East, while their Israeli hosts reiterated appreciation for Canada’s strong support.

“There are so many great connections between Canada and Israel,” Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird told those gathered at the dinner at the Inbal Hotel.

The event was hosted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Canadian Embassy and the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation.

Baird and Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty spent last week in Israel holding meetings with their Israeli counterparts and reaffirming Canadian support for the Jewish state.

The Canadian ministers held brief meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. They also travelled to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

Canada’s decision to stand by Israel when much of the world is only too happy to condemn Jerusalem is something Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said should not be taken for granted.

“Certainly in this day and age when there are dark forces turning, it’s important that countries that share the same values share a good relationship. We have appreciation for the Canadian government,” Ayalon told The CJN. “We’re very honoured that John Baird is here.”

With harp and flute notes in the background, dozens of parliamentarians from both countries mingled with embassy staff, reporters, army officials, philanthropists and businessmen.

Guests-of-honour Baird and Flaherty, who attended numerous policy roundtables during their visit to Israel – including speaking at the Herzliyah Conference in Tel Aviv, and meeting with Israeli heads of industry – were cheery and full of praise for the Israel-Canada alliance.

“The saying, ‘If I’m not for myself who will be for me’… I think that for many years Israel felt there was no one in its court,” Flaherty said. “But as Minister Baird said, it’s not that Canada is behind Israel, it’s that Canada stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel.”

Such sentiments were reiterated throughout the evening.

“Canada was always Israel’s friend but in the last 10 years became one of Israel’s best friends in the world – some people will say Israel’s best friend. Our second-best friend is ourselves and the United States and some others, but we cannot compete with Canada. I think the Canadian government is better friends with Israel than we are sometimes with ourselves,” said Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

“We’re a little tiny Jewish democracy in the Middle East and we need friends,” he added. “Canada has become one of Israel’s most committed friends.”

Though an overall feeling of optimism prevailed at the event, there was no missing the perforations of threats from the Arab world and specifically Iran.

“We’re living through a period in which support for Israel is important. There’s a critical mass of threat… a triangular threat from Sinai, from Gaza and from Egypt,” Liberal MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler told The CJN.

In addition, he warned of Israel’s position in the wake of the Arab Spring. 

“Now, Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s government, Syria’s always a threat, a threat from Iraq on the eastern front and over and above all, the Iranian threat,” he said. “I commend the Canadian government for this support of Israel.”

Baird said it was during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center that the danger Israel faces from Iran really hit home.

“[Nazi leader] Adolf Hitler wrote about his plans in great detail. He had already published Mein Kampf. What [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has said about what the Jews are and wanting to wipe them off the earth is something the world should take very seriously,” Baird told The CJN. “I’m not saying this is what is going to happen. But when people look back 50 or 60 years, no one can say we didn’t know. No one can be surprised. The Holocaust tells us that we must take Iran’s threats seriously.”

Baird announced from Israel last week that Canada had decided to tighten sanctions on Iran and had frozen the assets of three Iranian-born Canadians and five Iranian companies operating in Canada, and prohibited them from conducting business using the Special Economic Measures Act.

Israel’s Minister of Information and Diaspora Yuli Edelstein also spoke of the Iranian threat.

“Iran is a great danger. Ahmadinejad is saying that he will increase by 127 per cent the nuclear budget. He’s on a mission and is determined to fulfil it. The question is whether the world is on a mission and determined,” Edelstein told The CJN.

“Israelis are more aware and understand how important the Canada-Israel relationship is,” he added.

“Whether coming from Iran, Al Qaeda or Hamas… we need some more clear voices like [Canada’s] when it comes to challenges ahead of us,” Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon said. “The Canadian people and the Canadian government are so admired here in our tiny country, the State of Israel.”

Nevertheless, the positive vibe at the party managed to overcome the mention of warnings and threats emanating from Israel’s enemies. After all, this was a reception to celebrate friendship, where most guests were sporting a lapel pin with the Canadian and Israeli flags that were handed out at the entrance to the reception.

“We’re honoured and pleased by the ministers’ visit and the support of the Canadian government of Israel as a fellow democracy,” CIJA chair David Koschitzky said. 

The waiters weaved through the crowd with hors d’oeuvres – salmon was a main theme _ likely a tribute to the Canadian guests – while a who’s who of diplomats and distinguished guests mingled about.

Canadian Ambassador to Israel Paul Hunt, a co-host of the affair, and Miriam Ziv, Israel’s ambassador to Canada attended, along with many of their embassy staff.

Baird acknowledged the high turnout of Israeli ministers to the event, saying that he knows only too well that most parliamentarians prefer to duck out of engagements of this nature. Even David Weinberg, director of the Israel Office of CIJA, who has hosted many events, told The CJN that not only was it easy to secure the attendance of Israeli guests but also other influential people requested they be invited to the affair.

“I have never in all my years been more proud to be a Canadian and a member of [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s team than on this visit to Israel, where we’ve been able to connect with so many friends,” Baird said. “The warm reception we have received has been phenomenal.”

He and Flaherty were scheduled to travel to China from Israel over the weekend.

With files from Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf