Vivian Bercovici: Why Canada’s embassy to Israel belongs in Jerusalem

Israel is the only country in the world that has been denied the threshold respect of designating its own capital

“I will recognize the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Of all the bold comments made by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in a Montreal foreign policy speech last week, this is the one — coupled with the pledge to relocate the Canadian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — that attracted the most blowback, much of it egregiously uninformed.

The primary objections to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel are spurious, at best: that to do so is contrary to international law, and that in addition to predetermining negotiation outcomes, will also incite violent retaliation and unrest. These straw men, or women, are just that. In fact, it is the perpetuation of such baseless canards that presents the real threat to regional and global order.

Why?

Well, the answer to that lies in the response to so many who are asking: why should Canada even care about the capital of Israel?

Because Canada should aspire to be a principled, disciplined global actor. Foreign policy, thoughtfully conceived and implemented, reflects pragmatic and idealistic aspects of political and national identity and places those aspirations in an international context. If Canada is, as we are reminded daily and want to believe, an arbiter of decency, fairness and international rules-based law and order, well, then, we should honour those lofty commitments.

Israel is the only country in the world — including all the nations that have emerged and formed in the post-colonial and Soviet eras — that has been denied the threshold respect from the international community of designating its own capital.

Canada should aspire to be a principled, disciplined global actor

As Eugene Kontorovich (professor of Law at George Mason University and international legal expert on the Jerusalem issue) testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee hearing in November, 2017: “The insistence on maintaining (this) policy legacy when it comes to Israel … locks in a deeply anti-Israel bias in America’s regional diplomacy. The refusal to locate the embassy in Jerusalem is both anachronistic and incoherent.”

It also flies in the face of international law.

As empires crumbled throughout the 20th century, a long-established legal principle was applied to assist in determining the borders of emerging states. Simply put, the doctrine of uti possidetis holds that the borders recognized by the last “top level” governing administrative authority in the territory shall be largely determinative, if not decisively so, of the boundaries of an emerging state.

This doctrine was first applied 200 years ago as South America was decolonized, and has persisted as the unquestioned international legal standard, having been applied without controversy the world over, including with the many nations that emerged from the carved-up Soviet empire. Canada’s steadfast defence of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea is rooted in this doctrine.

This “go to” law has guided the treatment of the borders of new countries, to the present.

Except when it comes to Israel.

In 1947, the UN proposed a compromise Partition Plan — Resolution 181 — to address the Jewish and Palestinian claims to land known then as the British Mandate of Palestine. British colonial control was coming to an end throughout the region. Resolution 181 was put to a vote at the UN General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947. The Arabs — including the Palestinians — rejected the proposal. Israel accepted.

This ‘go to’ law has guided the treatment of the borders of new countries

The root of the notion of an international modern-day Jerusalem, Resolution 181 also encompassed Bethlehem, which, curiously, attracts zero attention or concern.

The Arabs rejected it all, holus-bolus, preferring, as they did, to go to war with the newly declared state, vowing to destroy it. This aggressive absolutism effectively tossed Resolution 181 in the trash. This declaration of the General Assembly was not law but, rather, a statement of a preferred outcome.

Under the terms of the Armistice Agreement negotiated between the Arabs and Israel in 1949, Israel controlled considerably more land than had been allocated under Resolution 181. Had the doctrine of uti possidetis been applied to Israel at that time, the fledgling state would have been granted control of the territory of all Mandatory Palestine. But it was not.

In any event, the preferred Israeli solution, as reflected in decades of attempts, would be to negotiate a resolution with the Palestinians, directly. Regrettably, the Palestinians have made it a habit to rebuff such approaches. And their intransigence has been rewarded by the UN and Western powers, which default to pressuring Israel to concede more, and more, which encourages Palestinian maximalism. Viewed in this light, it’s quite rational for the Palestinians to carry on as they do.

Eventually, in the late ’70s, Jordan and Egypt tired of decades of war and negotiated peace treaties with Israel. The borders on which they relied in their negotiations and agreements were those set by The British Mandate in Palestine. Uti possidetis.

Much has changed in the regional geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East

The actual move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, finally accomplished a year ago this week, had been deferred since 1995, reputedly from a fear of some sort of massive Arab retaliation. That threat has failed to materialize. Furthermore, much has changed in the regional geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East in the ensuing decades. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are very concerned about extreme instability and the Sunni-Shiite tensions. They are much more focused on Iranian and fundamentalist insurrection and violence than the location of foreign embassies in Jerusalem.

Andrew Scheer, in advocating the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is articulating and advancing a principled and fact-based approach to foreign policy.

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