Israel’s outgoing ambassador reflects on his time in Canada

Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan (Photo Credit: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

When Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, retires on Nov. 29, three years after assuming the role, he will leave a changed man living in a very different world.

When he started in the job in 2016, he didn’t know what to expect from Canadian Jewry, or what the future held for Israel and its position in the Middle East.

Now, he has a better understanding of the nature of Canadian Jews – especially  compared to their counterparts in the United States, where he worked for eight years in various capacities – as well as the central division that will define international relations in the Middle East in the years to come.

Just about the only thing he doesn’t know is who will succeed him – a replacement has yet to be named because of the political situation in Israel.

When he was asked to comment on the country’s seeming inability to form a coalition government after two general elections in six months, Barkan’s first instinct was to laugh kindly and say, “You don’t seriously expect me to?” and then laugh again before answering.

“I will try to circumvent the volatility of the issue by saying the famous platitude, all democracies have their own way of establishing governments,” he said. “And because of the inherent diversity of the society in Israel, it delays the establishment of a government because of the internal balances between the various parties protected by the constitutional arrangements.”

As for the democracy he has lived in for the past three years, Barkan said that within a very short time, he had an “epiphany” about Canadian Jewry. He said the Canadian Jewish community sees Israel as the apple of its eye and supports Israel without trying to control it. He contrasted Canada’s “warm love” towards Israel with the “arrogant attitude” many Americans seem to have.

“Of course, that’s a generalization,” he said. “But I never met somebody here who looked arrogantly at Israel. They asked questions, they cared. But it’s all based on love and affection and looking up to Israel as the implementation of the dreams of centuries of Jewish life.”

Even though Barkan doesn’t yet know who will succeed him, he does know what he’d tell them. He’d say to more or less stay the course, to continue engaging in strategic political dialogue with the Canadian government, pushing for an improved trade relationship and maintaining the strong relationship between the country’s Jewish community and Israel.

“This is not 1917 Russia. We don’t need a revolution. We need wise counsel, a continuation of the work that has been done here,” he said.

Barkan also said Canada and Israel see “eye-to-eye” when it comes to their strategic analysis of the Middle East, even if they don’t always agree on the best course of action to pursue. Right now, that includes a defining conflict that puts Israel on the same side as some Arab countries for the first time in its history.

On one side, Barkan said, is a Shiite-Muslim Brotherhood alliance that includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas; on the other is a Sunni-Jewish alliance – Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – that’s trying to maintain the status quo.

“It’s a unique development that we have never seen before. The fact that Israel is involved in the inner Middle East struggle, that has never happened,” he said.

On Nov. 11, Barkan sent out a letter announcing his retirement and laying out his analysis of the situation in the Middle East. He is especially concerned with Iran’s continued belligerence and its repeated attempts to undermine stability in the region.

He specifically cited Iran’s destabilizing operations in Iraq, a week before the New York Times ran a front-page feature on how Tehran is wielding influence over Baghdad.

“So give us credit that we have updated our readers in Canada before the New York Times has even gotten hold of the information.… I’m trying to get credit for my dying career,” he joked.

Finally, Barkan addressed the recent rocket attacks coming from Gaza. He said it is Israel’s goal to find a solution in Gaza, in conjunction with Egypt and the United Nations, that would make it possible for the citizens of Gaza to live in peace. But Barkan said the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been trying to undermine the mediation process by committing acts of terrorism.

So Israel found the Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative in Gaza who was planning the terrorist activity and took him out. The ensuing exchange of fire was between Islamic Jihad and Israel, with Hamas staying on the sidelines, Barkan said.

“I have nothing good to say about Hamas. But as long as they control Gaza, they’re willing now after a long time to reach a settlement status quo,” he said. “And these guys of the Islamic Jihad were doing whatever they could to destroy that. In many ways, there was a tacit acceptance of Hamas, which they will never admit, God forbid, for whatever Israel was doing there.”