What are the implications of the Canada-Israel agreement to oppose the boycott of Israel?

baird and lieberman

In one of his last acts as Foreign Minister, John Baird, here shown with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, signed a memorandum of agreement with Israel to fight the growing movement to boycott Israel (BDS)

In his last trip as Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird signed a curious Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman of Israel. Officially called A Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel regarding Public Diplomacy Cooperation,” the Baird-Lieberman memo was signed on January 24th, 2014. What does it mean?

In normal parlance a MOU is not a legal document. No Canadian law is changed by it. No activity that was hitherto legal has been made illegal. Nor is it a treaty that would have to be ratified by Parliament. As its title makes clear, it is a document of “public diplomacy,” setting out a kind of “gentlemen’s agreement.” In other words, it has no teeth.

But that does not mean it is not important, nor that it can be ignored. It clearly represents another step by the Harper government to undercut those who criticize the State of Israel for its infractions of international law and human rights. It seems to be particularly aimed at the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel (BDS) which it calls “the new face of antisemitism.”

The main clauses of the agreement state:

  • “Deeply concerned by efforts to single out the State of Israel for criticism and isolate the State of Israel internationally including calls for a boycott of the State of Israel, for the divestment of investments, and for sanctions to be imposed on Israel”
  • “Recognizing that the selective targeting of Israel reflects the new face of anti‑Semitism, (…)”
  • “The participants will work together to oppose efforts to single out or isolate the State of Israel through developing a coordinated, public diplomacy initiative both bilaterally and in international and multilateral fora to oppose boycotts of Israel, its institutions, and its people within three to six months.”

Immediately after it was made public, Palestinian civil society groups participating in the boycott movement released a statement denouncing the agreement.

“Rather than seeking to hold Israel to account for its war crimes during the recent military assault on Gaza and its intensified colonization of the occupied West Bank, particularly in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, the Canadian government is (…) launching a shameful, propagandistic attack on free speech,” read the statement from the Palestinian BDS National Committee.

While Palestinian civil society was quick to criticize the agreement, so far few Canadian organizations have done so, perhaps because they are unclear about what it means. As of today, Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East (CJPME) is the only Canadian human rights organization to have raised a voice in criticism. CJPME noted that the agreement is a further attempt by the government of Canada to stifle legitimate debate on Israel. A couple of other Canadian organizations have circulated by email the Palestinian group’s commentary, but without any further comment of their own.

Intended as a threat – could this also be an opportunity??

The MOU itself has no teeth and does not represent an immediate threat to any Canadian exercising his or her right to criticize Israel. However, it is part of a relentless education/propaganda campaign to create a public climate which might be favourable to the passage of legislation outlawing the BDS movement for example on the grounds that it represents a new form of “anti-Semitism”. For this reason, it deserves criticism.

On the other hand, the two sides did commit to organizing “fora” on the topic within 3 to 6 months. Canadians interested in human rights should keep an eye on this. This might provide another opportunity to raise in Canada the issue of whether a boycott of Israel is justified because of its violations of human rights and international law.