Canada Calling: Choice of New Canadian Ambassador to Israel Widely Criticized

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Canada Calling: Choice of New Canadian Ambassador to Israel Widely Criticized

By John Dirlik

Canadian-Jewish organizations seemed to be the only ones to welcome Ottawa's appointment as ambassador to Israel of David Berger, a former member of Parliament with a long record of anti-Palestinian bias.

As soon as rumors surfaced that Berger was destined for the coveted diplomatic post, the National Council of Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR) issued a statement denouncing the government's potential choice. Berger's "ardent support during his parliamentary career for most of Israel's excesses--whether the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or the widespread Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights--render him singularly inappropriate for this position," read the statement.

Berger's appointment was viewed by many observers as a reward for relinquishing his seat in the St. Henri-Westmount riding of Montreal during last year's byelection so the Liberal party could run a francophone star candidate in preparation for the upcoming referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

During his 16 years in the House of Commons, Berger was one of the most outspoken supporters of Israeli policies and harshest critics of the Palestinians. In 1983, only months after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, Berger enthusiastically defended a visit to Canada by Ariel Sharon despite local protests over the Israeli defense minister's role during the slaughter of Palestinian men, women and children. In 1984, Berger vociferously opposed the appearance before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa of the PLO's representative to the United Nations, and as recently as 1990 continued to call the PLO a "terrorist organization."

Berger "participated in the demonization of the PLO and the Palestinian cause," said NCCAR director Ian Watson. "This is pretty serious baggage" given that Berger will be responsible for relations with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho, he said.

In a subsequent letter published by the Ottawa Citizen, Watson charged that by "disregarding Palestinian sentiments, this nomination runs counter to the accepted practice of seeking approval from the principals in the receiving country. As far as we know, Canada did not seek approval for Mr. Berger's appointment from the Palestinian National Authority."

Watson's Canadian Arab Council stressed that its opposition to Berger's appointment has "nothing to do with Mr. Berger's ethnicity or faith." The NCCAR had, in fact, publicly welcomed the choice of Berger's predecessor, Norman Spector, when in 1992 he became the first Canadian Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel.

Middle East specialists were not the only groups to denounce Berger's nomination. "For a second time, the ambassador to Israel is a political appointment," said Susan Harper, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which represents Canada's career diplomats. Neither Berger nor Spector were career diplomats prior to their appointments.

"For a second time, the ambassador to Israel is a political appointment."

Foreign Affairs Minister Andre Ouellet made no attempt to deny the charge that Berger's appointment was anything but patronage, an accusation that used to be routinely leveled by his own party against the former Conservative government. …