CANADA

TALKING TO THE PLO

CREATING A LINK WITH THE PLO ENDED MONTHS OF CONFUSION OVER CANADA'S POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

April 10 1989
CANADA

TALKING TO THE PLO

CREATING A LINK WITH THE PLO ENDED MONTHS OF CONFUSION OVER CANADA'S POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

April 10 1989

TALKING TO THE PLO

CREATING A LINK WITH THE PLO ENDED MONTHS OF CONFUSION OVER CANADA'S POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

CANADA

Closing the door of his Ottawa office, Abdullah Abdullah told his secretary that he did not want to be disturbed. But an official from Canada’s external affairs department called the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization on Ottawa’s Laurier Avenue West on March 30, and he quickly made an exception. As the PLO’s Ottawa information officer since 1972, Abdullah, 48, had waited for 16 years for permission to meet formally with senior Canadian officials. When the caller informed him that Canada was about to upgrade its relations with the PLO, Abdullah’s reaction was jubilant. “That is wonderful news,” he told the Maclean ’s correspondent who was interviewing him. “Absolutely wonderful.”

Later that afternoon, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark announced that Canada was lifting restrictions on meetings between the PLO and senior Canadian officials. He also said that Ottawa now endorsed the principle of selfdetermination for the Palestinian people. “Canadians naturally remain concerned about extreme elements associated with the PLO,” Clark told reporters assembled in Ottawa’s National Press Building for the announcement. “But it is our view that a peaceful settlement requires the participation of the PLO.”

The decision ended more than three months of confusion over Canada’s Middle East policy, which had spilled over into an apparent public disagreement in early March between Clark and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. But Canada’s decision to join its allies in improving ties with the PLO was greeted with skepticism by some Jewish leaders—and with open hostility by others. Said Meyer Nurenberger, publisher

of The Jewish Timesoi Toronto: “Joe Clark will not be considered in recorded Jewish history as a friend of Israel.”

The reaction in Israel was even more heated. Yosi Achimeier, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, said that Canada’s “negative” action would not help the Middle East peace process but would “encourage terrorist activities.” Said Achimeier: “We do not believe that the PLO is a positive partner in the peace process but, on the contrary, is interested in establishing a Palestinian state in place of the state of Israel.” To emphasize the point, Israel summoned Canadian ambassador James Bartleman to a meeting at week’s end with senior officials who were to voice their displeasure with Ottawa’s move.

Still, Canada was the last Western country to open formal ties with the PLO. That move was made easier by PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s renunciation of terrorism last December. But Clark said that Canada would not recognize the independent Palestinian state that Arafat proclaimed at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers last November. And Clark also said that Canada still does not formally consider the PLO to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Still, some Jewish leaders said that Canada’s change in policy on the Middle East amounted to tacit approval of the PLO.

They charged that Canada was merely jumping on a bandwagon created by countries that have responded positively to Arafat’s overtures since he appeared before the UN General Assembly in Geneva three months ago.

At the same time, other Canadian Jews welcomed Clark’s announcement and said that it would enhance Canada’s chances of participating in a negotiated peace in the Middle East.

Privately, some External Affairs officials acknowledged that the wording of Clark’s statement last week might have caused some confusion about how far the government intends to go in upgrading its relations with the PLO. For one thing, Clark said that Arafat’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and his disavowal of terrorism were major factors behind Canada’s decision to endorse the principle of Palestinian self-determination—even though Canada refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian state. “We had been concerned that the phrase ‘self-determination’ was being used as a code word for an independent state and that Canadian endorsement of the principle would be interpreted as advocacy of an independent state,” said Clark. “That interpretation is no longer possible because an

independent state has been declared and not recognized by Canada.”

But some Jewish leaders rejected the language as misleading. Said Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple: “It is probably de facto recognition.” However, Stephen Lewis, former ambassador to the UN and a supporter of improved relations with the PLO, said that he saw no ambiguity. “It is obviously recognition of the PLO, which it should be,” said Lewis.

In fact, Clark’s decision may have been influenced in part by the fact that Canada now has a seat on the UN Security Council, occupied by Lewis’s successor, Yves Fortier. Canadian diplomats had complained that Ottawa’s refusal to upgrade ties with the PLO had left them in an embarrassing position. “It will take some time for us to restore our credentials,” said Lewis.

But critics of the move poured scorn on that suggestion. Said Sidney Spivak, national chairman of the Canada-Israël Committee: “The new policy may make Canada more comfortable hosting receptions at the UN, but Canada’s role as a conciliator in the Middle East has been diminished.” According to a senior External Affairs official, Clark himself telephoned a number of leading Canadian Jews—including Spivak—to tell them he planned to make the announcement.

Jewish leaders also expressed regret that Ottawa had not coupled its announcement with a stem warning against renewed g PLO terrorism. Indeed, ï critics of the PLO said that 5 Arafat’s subordinates continue to issue threats against Israel. Said Liberal Senator Leo Kolber: “The people around Arafat are still calling for the destruction of Israel when they speak to Arab audiences.” But, despite last week’s announcement, the Tories are clearly still sensitive about their approach to the Middle East. Although Clark himself has made no secret of his desire for upgraded relations with the PLO, he told reporters that he had not wanted to proceed until he received the approval of his cabinet colleagues. But even after his announcement, few Tories were willing to say publicly where they stood on the issue. As Clark and Mulroney may discover, such decisions are politically risky. “There is no doubt that Brian has always been a friend of Israel,” said Kolber. “But this is definitely not going to help him in the Jewish community.”

BRUCE WALLACE

PAUL KAIHLA

DAN BURKE

LISA VAN DUSEN with BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa, PAUL KAIHLA in Toronto and DAN BURKE in Montreal