Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Canada, Qatar clash over Palestine reference

By Anca Gurzu 

Qatari officials have publicly blasted Canada, accusing it of throwing a wrench into a three-day summit between G8 and Arab countries last week by refusing to include a Palestine reference in the final statement.

Although Canadian officials have said negotiations are still ongoing, the incident has highlighted mounting friction between Canada and the region, relations with which were already strained because of the country's dispute with the United Arab Emirates and its staunchly pro-Israel policies.

Launched at the G8 summit in 2004 in Sea Island, the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative is a multilateral program aimed at "enhancing an open and inclusive dialogue between governments and civil society on issues of political and economic reform and human development" in order to create partnerships and foster open dialogue to advance the progress and development of the region, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Much like the G8 has numerous ministerial meetings and summits, the Initiative's main event is a Forum of the Future, which aims to bring together about 20 countries from the North Africa and the Middle East region, G8 members and hundreds of representatives from civil society and business groups. Each year's forum is co-chaired by the G8 president and a nation from the region, with the two nations expected to issue a joint statement highlighting that year's work.

On Jan. 13, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was in Doha to co-chair the 7th Forum of the Future. However, a joint statement wasn't released because, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency, Canada "insisted that the statement should exclude a paragraph on the Palestinian issue."

Although the exact details of the contested paragraph remain unknown, Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ahmad Bin Abdullah Al Mahmoud said the paragraph "on the Palestinian question is important and sensitive, pertaining to the Palestinian cause, the borders of the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and related UN Security Council resolutions."

As evidence of the country's displeasure, the minister was quoted as saying that "Qatar would not accept a meeting to be held on home soil that ignores the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

The same agency reported that "numerous discussions were made with the Canadian side to discourage it from its position, but it was adamant on its position." According to another article on the Qatar News Agency website, French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie "had intervened with the Canadian minister to back the Qatari proposal."

Qatari diplomats in Washington did not provide Embassy with more details about this confrontation. Questions sent to the delegation of the Palestinian Authority in Ottawa were also left unanswered.

Melissa Lantsman, Mr. Cannon's spokesperson, said Canada is committed to continuing to work with Qatar to finalize a co-chair statement "that reflects this progress and takes into account the situation in the region, including the Middle East Peace Process, including a paragraph on the issue."

The disagreement over the Palestine reference coincidently came just a couple of days after Defence Minister Peter MacKay met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 12 during his official visit to the Middle East.

Ms. Lantsman said Canada is not against including a paragraph with reference to Palestine.

"That's patently false," she told Embassy. "That's not what we are negotiating here. We are negotiating the wording of the statement."

However, Ms. Lantsman also said that "Canada does not believe [the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative] is the appropriate forum to be negotiating the final status issues of Middle East peace process. We urge parties to return to direct bilateral negotiations to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement."

But the Forum of the Future is a relevant medium for many Arab countries to be discussing the Middle East Peace Process, and Canada just seems to be sending confusing messages about its own policy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar.

The 2009 co-chair statement hosted by Morocco and Italy re-stated the need to achieve a two-state solution consistent with several highly-accepted UN resolutions on the issue. Qatari officials were quoted as saying that Canada and the Middle Eastern country could not agree on a statement that is less substantial than the previous one.

Mr. Dewar couldn't understand the government's position.

"I would think that our government would want to see us involved in any process that was looking at moving ahead with the Middle East Peace process," he said. "That was the intent of the conference and it's unfortunate that we decided that we are not going to participate."

Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae said what is surprising is the fact that the disagreement over the format of the text had not been resolved before the meeting, as is normally the case at such international meetings.

"In the normal course of events the communiqué is something that's worked on long before," he said.

Mr. Rae said Canada used to be a constructive player in the Middle East, but that has been changing.

"It's just surprising to me that the government seems to be unable to find a way to bridge the gaps which other Canadian governments have always been able to do," he said.


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