John Baird's decision to travel to the United Nations Thursday to personally vote against a Palestinian bid for upgraded status casts him as a leader of the No forces in a tangled international dispute. The question is what he'll do next.
Stephen Harper's government has lobbied hard against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's bid for status as a non-member observer state at the UN. Like Israel and the U.S., Canada had warned the Palestinian Authority of potential reprisals. But Mr. Abbas's bid will pass, by a huge margin. France will support it. Britain will abstain. So will Australia, often an Israeli ally at the UN.
In New York, Mr. Baird will be part of a small rump, alongside Israel, the U.S. and a handful of others. Now, the question is whether he'll hit back at the Palestinian Authority, and how hard. Israel, which had threatened a tough reaction, is retreating to a more muted response. But Mr. Baird suggested Canada still intends to punish the Palestinian Authority.
What Mr. Baird did not say is how far he will go, or whether Canada will cut cold, hard cash – the foreign aid the Palestinian Authority relies upon. Canada has provided $300-million over five years, and will soon make a decision on renewing it. But countries that contemplate reprisals also have to worry they will destabilize Mr. Abbas's moderates, in control in the West Bank, and strengthen their Islamist rivals in Hamas, who rule in Gaza.
Israel, and its allies in Ottawa and Washington, argue Mr. Abbas is trying to declare a state unilaterally. Israel expressed alarm at the prospect that this might open the door to other UN bodies and especially the International Criminal Court (ICC) where it fears the Palestinian Authority might file a slew of suits.
It's clear that Mr. Baird wants to make a show of opposing the Palestinian resolution. Only a handful of foreign ministers will be at the UN for Thursday's vote. His mere presence makes him a self-appointed spokesman for the opposition.
Behind the scenes, Canada has been a spokesman for months. Mr. Harper personally warned Mr. Abbas of "consequences" in September. Canadian officials have been lobbying other nations, too; they knew the Palestinian motion would pass, but they hoped to persuade more nations to oppose it. "The Canadian government's been talking to everybody," said one Western diplomat.
It did little. Britain decided to abstain, and offered to vote yes if Mr. Abbas would rule out membership in the ICC. Australian PM Julia Gillard faced a caucus revolt when she wanted to vote against the resolution, so her government will abstain. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr argued it was important to support moderate Palestinians like Mr. Abbas over Hamas.
That is the dilemma Mr. Baird still faces.
For months, Israel hinted at reprisals, like cutting off transfers of revenues to the Palestinian Authority. But now Israel faces the immediate fear that weakening Mr. Abbas means strengthening Hamas, and they have backed off. Since Tuesday, Israeli officials have argued upgraded Palestinian UN status is futile, and they will respond with punitive measures if Mr. Abbas seeks to go further, like applying for membership in the ICC.
The Harper government now has to decide whether it will fall back, too. Its private warning that it might close the Palestinian delegation would be a dramatic break with Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority. Cutting off all aid would be a real blow. As a lesser step, Ottawa might withdraw from UN agencies the Palestinians join, reduce its aid a little or set new conditions on it.
Now, as Mr. Baird prepares to lead a charge in New York, the real question will be how far he'll go.
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