Baird names new ambassador to Israel

Vivian Bercovici with Minister John Baird

A staunch supporter of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and a strong critic of Arab leadership and the United Nations – has been named Canada’s next ambassador to the Jewish state.

In a move few expected, Toronto lawyer Vivian Bercovici was named to the post Jan. 8 by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. She replaces Paul Hunt, who had held the post from 2011 until this past June. She will not represent Canada to the Palestinian Authority.

In Ottawa, Baird praised the new appointee as “smart and capable and [who] will be able to represent this government well.”

The naming of Bercovici, a non-diplomat, to the sensitive post was seen by many as squaring with the Conservative government’s well-known support for Israel.

“It won’t be a huge shock to anyone that Canada is a strong supporter of Israel,” Baird replied to a question about Bercovici’s perceived bias against the Palestinian leadership.

In a statement announcing the posting, Baird noted that “having lived in Israel and written extensively on the region, Ms. Bercovici has an excellent understanding of the challenges facing the country and deep insight into the opportunities provided by the strong links between our two countries.”

Bercovici, a partner in the Toronto firm of Dickinson Wright, studied at Hebrew University in the early 1980s and was an adjunct law professor at the University of Toronto.

 She also wrote a monthly column for the Toronto Star that was unabashedly pro-Israel and often pointed out human rights abuses in the Arab and Palestinian world.

At Wednesday’s announcement, Bercovici read from a prepared statement and took no questions from reporters. The CJN’s request for an interview was denied.

“My interest in Israel and the region goes back a long way,” Bercovici told reporters. “Now is a very important time in the region, as important as ever, and I’m very honoured to be appointed to take on this role. I know that this government’s principled stands on various fronts is warmly welcomed and appreciated by both the Israeli government and the Israeli people.

“Canada supports Israel’s right to exist in peace and security. Canada stands firm in the international fight against anti-Semitism, including raising awareness of the Holocaust,” she said.

“And Canada recognizes the importance of building inclusive and stable societies underpinned by democracy, freedom and human rights and the rule of law.”

Reportedly, Ottawa’s first choice, former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk, turned down the job to head the Canadian Space Agency.

It’s not the first time a non-diplomat and a Jew was named ambassador to Israel. Jean Chrétien appointed Liberal MP David Berger to the job, and Brian Mulroney named his former chief of staff, Norman Spector.

Bercovici “is not responsible for relations with the PA and will have no problem representing Canada in Israel,” Spector told The CJN in an email, though that “could be a problem if there's a change in government” in Israel.

Her "inexperience in diplomacy [is] more than made up for by familiarity with the country to which she is being posted and other career accomplishments," said Spector, who served as ambassador to Israel from 1992 to 1995 and was the first Jewish Canadian to hold the post.

“It’s good to see being Jewish [is] no longer the taboo for such an appointment that it used to be in Canada, the U.S. and [most recently] the U.K.,” he stated.

According to her firm’s website, Bercovici’s practice focuses on insurance regulatory matters, corporate governance, risk management, libel and slander, privacy, aboriginal law, and public policy and legislative advice.

She joined the Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company as a legal executive in 1998 and was promoted to vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary, a position she held until 2006.

Since 2007, she has served as a chief federal negotiator on various claims made by First Nations against Canada.

In March, she was appointed to the board of directors of CBC/Radio-Canada for a five-year term, and was a director of the Canadian Journalism Foundation from 2004 to 2009.

Her sole government experience appears to have been as senior policy adviser to former Ontario finance minister Ernie Eves from 1995 to 1997.

A mother of two, Bercovici graduated from York University with a BA in English and political science in 1984, earned a diploma from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1985, and graduated in law from the University of Toronto in 1988. She was called to Ontario’s bar in 1990.

Her appointment came as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is finalizing his trip to the Middle East later this month. Bercovici, whose appointment is effective immediately, is expected to be part of the delegation accompanying Harper.

Shimon Fogel and a majority of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) board will also accompany Harper, as will several leaders of B'nai Brith Canada.

In her Star columns, she has praised Netanyahu and lashed out against Hamas, the Palestinian leadership and the UN. A sampling:

• The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have a “collective ideological commitment to the total destruction of the state of Israel, which they regard as a blasphemous blight on the Arab and Muslim worlds.”

• “It really doesn’t matter to [Palestinians] who wins and leads in Israel. There is no willing negotiator on the Palestinian side.”

• Western powers “hold on to a misguided fantasy of the Middle East.” U.S. President Barack Obama has been “weak” on the Middle East while he “fawned” over Iran.

• Netanyahu is a “respected” leader who “has enhanced national security, immeasurably.”

• Leading the charge against Israel at the UN “were the beacons of international human rights,” including Egypt. “Wow. This, from a country that condones detention without charges; which just replaced an elected Islamist government by military putsch; that flooded Gaza smuggling tunnels and has choked off the passage of goods or people to and from the territory, with impunity and without exception.”

• In her last column, on Dec. 2, Bercovici compared the West’s recent nuclear deal with Iran to the prewar appeasement of Nazi Germany: “Tehran. Munich. So many, in recent weeks, have remarked on this déjà vu moment in international geopolitics, when the dazed and confused take the lead in appeasing the aggressor.”

In a statement, CIJA chair David Koschitzky said, “We offer our warm congratulations to Ambassador Bercovici and are confident she will serve Canada with distinction and honour.

“Ambassador Bercovici is articulate, knowledgeable, and brings a wealth of experience in law and academia. She is well-poised to take the Canada-Israel relationship to the next level for the benefit of both countries, particularly in the areas of trade, energy, science and technology.”

Bercovici should not be criticized for her “frank assessments,” said Hart Schwartz, vice-chair of JSpace Canada, a group for progressive Zionists.

Given her legal skills, the new envoy “may be most productive in quietly persuading the Netanyahu government to seriously engage in the [U.S.-led] Kerry initiative, and cease succumbing to its hard right base through further settlement expansions during this delicate period,” Schwartz said.

Reactions from other Jewish organizations were solicited, but not received.