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Canada walks political minefield with UN abstention on Trump embassy plan

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, at United Nations headquarters.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Canada tiptoed through one of the world's most dangerous political minefields on Thursday when it abstained from a United Nations vote that rebuked Donald Trump's Middle East policy.

The government walked away from the potentially explosive debate over Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sustaining only limited damage: the United States said it was pleased, the Palestinians said they were fine too, and Canada's leading Jewish affairs organization expressed muted disappointment.

Well-placed sources told The Canadian Press that the government's decision to abstain was the result of a painstaking two-week analysis that tried to balance two competing interests — Canada's support of the U.S.'s sovereign right to decide on the location of its embassy versus Ottawa's view that the status of Jerusalem has to be decided as part of a broader peace agreement.

Canada was one of 35 countries that abstained from voting on a contentious UN resolution denouncing Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The General Assembly voted 128-9 in favour of the resolution.

The vote placed Canada in a difficult situation because Trump had threatened to retaliate against countries that supported the resolution. And it came as Canada is in the midst of a tough renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with a protectionist Trump administration that has threatened to tear up the deal.

Sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Canadian diplomats saw the political storm taking shape 10 days ago and started working on a plan. They analysed several factors — Middle East policy, international politics, and considerations closer to home: Canada-U.S. relations, and Canada's bid for a temporary seat on the UN's Security Council.

Abstention was seen as the best option.

On Wednesday, Canada gave the U.S. a heads-up of its intention. On Thursday morning, the U.S. was informed of the final decision, a few hours before Marc-Andre Blanchard, Canada's UN ambassador, explained that decision to the General Assembly.

Canada didn't receive any assurances from the U.S., and American officials at the UN never promised that an abstention would be well-viewed, sources said.

But in the end, it appeared to assuage the Americans. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, thanked the countries that supported the U.S., including abstainers, Canada and Mexico among them.

"We appreciate these countries for not falling to the irresponsible ways of the @ UN," Haley tweeted.

Blanchard made it clear the resolution never should have landed on the floor of the General Assembly.

"We are disappointed that this resolution is one sided and does not advance prospects for peace to which we aspire, which is why we have abstained on today's vote," Blanchard told the General Assembly.

Blanchard said Canada wants to emphasize that Jerusalem has special significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"Denying the connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths undermines the integrity of the site for all. We also reiterate the need to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem's Holy sites."

Blanchard also affirmed Canada's "long-standing position" that the status of Jerusalem should be left for a broader settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The Palestinian General Delegation in Ottawa said in a statement that it welcomed "Canada's balanced position" as expressed by Blanchard.

"Canada's stance with regards to the status of the city of Jerusalem and the announcement of the government that it will not move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem come in line with international legitimacy, laws and resolutions," the delegation said.

David Cape, the president of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said he appreciated that Canada acknowledged the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, "and correctly described the resolution as one-sided and unhelpful."

"That said," he added, "we would have preferred for Canada to have voted no in order to send a clear message that it rejects continued efforts to use the UN as a platform to attack, de-legitimize, vilify, and isolate Israel."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland discussed the issue of relocating the American embassy in Israel with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a meeting Tuesday on Parliament Hill, after which she suggested they had agreed to disagree.

"Canada and the United States have different views on issues and I think that we have a strong enough relationship — both our two countries and Rex and I personally — that we're able to be candid about those differences and explain them to one another," said Freeland, standing next to Tillerson.

Bessma Momani, a senior fellow and Middle East expert with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation said the threat of retaliation should not have influenced how Canada voted.

"Canada may find itself in a tough position as we try to renegotiate a NAFTA deal, but we should stand with the international community and wider expert opinion that the U.S. move is unnecessary, counterproductive, and toxic," she said.

"Moreover, there's power in a collective response against Trump and we should take comfort in that."

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