Trudeau should use Israel embassy issue strategically

Justin Trudeau, left, meets Benjamin Netanyahu at conference on climate change in Paris
Justin Trudeau, left, meets Benjamin Netanyahu at conference on climate change in Paris

I’m confused. Why isn’t there any pressure on the Canadian government to move its embassy to Jerusalem? Or even better, why isn’t Justin Trudeau’s government, as a professed “friend” of Israel, stepping up and acknowledging Israel’s right to choose its own capital, like every other country in the world?

Canadian nationalists who resent the assumption that the United States is the only major western player on the world stage, should acknowledge their own passivity – and that of others – regarding Israel. We saw it during the fight over UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December.

The debate was so focused on whether the United States would veto this counterproductive, disruptive and unfair resolution that, according to the Times of Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t even call British Prime Minster Theresa May and ask that her country veto the measure. While this oversight reflects incompetence on Netanyahu’s part and had nothing to do with Canada, it reflects a mindset that has the western alliance focusing on what Papa Bear America is doing with Baby Bear Israel, sidelining every other country.

‘intelligent leaders should use the location question as one tool in their arsenal to make some progress in the Middle East’

Besides whatever satisfaction Trudeau and Canada might get (and should get!) by doing the right thing after decades of unfairness and locating the Canadian embassy where it belongs – in Israel’s capital – there are two great upsides for Trudeau here. First, a Justin Trudeau-Donald Trump meeting is likely to be as prickly as the first Pierre Trudeau-Ronald Reagan meetings were. It’s just a clash of personalities, sensibilities and policies.

After politicking for months against his favourite scapegoat, free trade, Trump will enter the meeting seeking rollbacks on this important deal – which has benefited Americans, Canadians and Mexicans. Trudeau could charm him – and disarm the blustery new American president – by starting with a gift: support for Trump’s embassy promise.

In addition to warming relations with the United States – and taking the initiative with Trump – Trudeau could also offer badly needed, thoughtful, constructive leadership on the Middle East.

While I believe that all embassies should be in Jerusalem, I also believe that, given the current status quo, intelligent leaders should use the location question as one tool in their arsenal in trying to make some progress in the Middle East. Palestinians might be willing to make certain concessions to stop such a move, while Israelis might be willing to do the same to encourage the move. Smart diplomats use whatever they can to pursue peace.

One of the great lost opportunities in the recent Middle East was in 2005, when Israel disengaged from Gaza. Rather than acting unilaterally and allowing extremists to then claim that Israel retreated out of fear of their violence, Israel should have made the withdrawal in the context of concessions to more moderate, responsible Palestinian leadership, and as a way of nurturing moderate, responsible Palestinian leadership.


Instead, Hamas seized control in Gaza, and Palestinian moderates have complained that Israelis often unintentionally reinforce bad behaviour rather than good behaviour, thereby empowering extremists and undermining moderates.

Canada always claims it wants to inject more reasonable, temperate and balanced approaches into international diplomacy. Trump’s campaign pledge has put the Jerusalem embassy question into play for the first time in years.

Rather than simply watching the United States, Israel and the rest of the world play out some drama that probably won’t end well, here’s the chance for Canada to use this newly weaponized issue, nudge toward some kind of progress in the Middle East, assert Canada’s moral power, and smooth the way for some kind of friendship between Canada’s young, hip, cosmopolitan prime minister and America’s old, boorish, xenophobic president.

What a shame that the chances of this right move – politically and existentially –occurring are about as likely as a burst of Indian summer in the middle of a Montreal winter.