John Baird is embarking on a long Middle East tour looking to build Canadian policy and ties in the region beyond the Harper government's staunch pro-Israel stand.
In a 12-day tour that comes on the heels of visits to the region by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the Canadian Foreign Minister will visit Israel and the West Bank, but also other key players like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The trip, according to government officials, will in part underline efforts to build a broader regional policy beyond Israel-Palestinian issues.
The Harper government's support for Israel has been a defining characteristic of its foreign policy. Mr. Baird is keen to show it can build diplomatic and trade ties in the region that are not dominated by the Palestinian question, particularly at a time when other dividing lines, like the Syria crisis and the fallout from the Arab Spring, are consuming much of the region.
But the timing means the Israel-Palestinian question will certainly be a prominent topic in some of Mr. Baird's travels.
Last week, Mr. Obama delivered a speech in Israel stressing the need to negotiate peace with Palestinians – an effort to ensure the peace process will be on the agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new coalition government. Mr. Baird will have an opportunity for an early view of that coalition's approach to the Palestinian issue.
The tour will also include Mr. Baird's first meeting with senior Palestinian Authority officials since last November, when he played a vocal role in opposing their bid for observer-state status at the United Nations.
Ottawa's opposition to that bid, which included veiled threats that Canada would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, sparked an angry reaction from advisers to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas – who warned that they would not only cut Canada out of any peace-process role, but also ask Arab states to punish Canada for its attitude.
Both sides appear to have cooled the rhetoric since then. On Thursday, Mr. Baird hinted that Ottawa intends to renew at least some parts of the five-year, $300-million package of aid, launched in 2008, that runs out within days. He lauded some aid projects and said he wants to discuss new plans with Palestinian leaders. "That's going to be the dialogue, to find out what their priorities are," he said.
However, Mr. Baird will seek to expand relations beyond that issue, and is likely to find partners among Middle East nations that increasingly consider there is more to Mideast peace than Israel-Palestinian peace, one Canadian official said. The Syria crisis, and its potential destabilizing effect on neighbours – as well as efforts to counter Iran's role in promoting extremism – "will be top-of-mind on the agenda," Mr. Baird told reporters.
His first stop will be in Jordan, where Canada and other Western nations are increasingly concerned about the stability of the monarchy of King Abdullah – which they regard as a linchpin of moderation and stability – as an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and a weak economy have fuelled public discontent.
Canada has sent millions to Jordan's government to assist with the refugee crisis, including $11.5-million sent to its army and police to pay for vehicles and equipment – an unusual donation for Canada, which rarely sends money directly to another country's military.
And he will also visit key players in the Gulf, in stops in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. The UAE and Qatar, both wealthy oil states, not only hold potential for trade, but are "important players and emerging powers" in regional affairs, a Canadian official said. Qatar is now a major backer of the Syrian opposition, for example.
Paul Heinbecker, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, said it is not clear whether the Harper government will simply be able to park its position on Palestinian issues – "viewed by many as too pro-Israel" – to one side while it seeks to work with Muslim nations on other issues.
But he said it is a good thing to seek to expand ties in an area where Ottawa has often paid little attention to many countries – or was only concerned with business. "I think that we have to be adding to the fabric of relations," Mr. Heinbecker said. "It's tended to be simply economic."