Off to Tel Aviv: The Latest Strange Diplomatic Appointment

Shortly before the Prime Minister’s January trip to the Middle East, the Harper Government announced its choice to fill Canada’s long-vacant ambassadorial chair in Tel Aviv. Vivian Bercovici—a Toronto lawyer, occasional commentator on Israeli affairs and backroom Tory loyalist—is the new head of mission. She was accorded a lukewarm but appropriate welcome to the Canadian foreign service by its professional association, which cast an even-handed judgment on what, at first glance, seems an unusual choice.

This isn’t as much of a head-scratcher as the Prime Minister’s appointment last year of his bodyguard to be ambassador to Jordan. But it continues a long stretch of odd PMO nominations in different areas. However even-handed one wants to be, the plain fact is that Ms. Bercovici has virtually no qualifications for the job. Even her political connections are thin when compared to others who might have claims to a political appointment.

 

There is a price to be paid in terms of an appointment of this sort.

Despite her lack of qualifications, it’s hard to get exercised about this choice. The Prime Minister has made it clear to Foreign Affairs that he has his own channels of advice on Israel and the Middle East, and is not interested in the views of officials. An embassy’s normal function—offering assessments of the local scene using informed contacts or framing policy advice to Ottawa based on nuances missing in the government’s current grasp of a regional situation—is no longer part of the mandate. When an embassy’s principal role no longer exists, it doesn’t matter much who the head of mission is.

Still, there are curiosities about the Bercovici appointment. They start with her political views, featured on a monthly basis in the Toronto Star. Her columns contain no Canadian foreign policy content and nothing about what Canada could be doing in a volatile part of the world. Nothing in them conveys insights on how our embassy in Tel Aviv could be helping in a variety of directions. Nothing suggests an informed grasp of the future of the region or how Canada might be involved.

Her columns are a faithful echo of one part of a wide spectrum of public opinion in Israel: the views of the Likud party and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Her opinions on other issues such as the Palestinians, Iran, the UN or U.S. policy are a rote recital of Netanyahu speeches and current Israeli government positions. Collectively, they reflect a lack of depth that wouldn’t pass muster in Israel itself, where the debate on national and international issues is tough and sophisticated, and not for the marginally informed.

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No doubt her views have already been well studied in Tel Aviv. They will open doors for Ms. Bercovici in Likud party circles, although it’s not clear what Canadian interests or values will be much advanced as a result. She’ll have a tougher time with other Israelis who don’t share those views, and she won’t receive much of a welcome from Israeli Palestinians, either Muslims or Christians. Within the Tel Aviv diplomatic community, one suspects that the collegiality normally enjoyed automatically by Canadian ambassadors will be a bit more restrained in her case until friends and allies assess what can be said and what can be shared. The likely answer: very little.

There is a price to be paid in terms of an appointment of this sort. Heads of mission have two basic roles: to speak for Canada and to inform Canadians, especially the government, about their countries of accreditation. The most basic question as Ms. Bercovici begins the job is whether she can perform either task. Although she undoubtedly speaks for the Prime Minister, it’s tougher to argue that she speaks for Canadians, even the growing numbers in the Harper caucus growing restive about the PMO’s policy lines. Putting someone into a head of mission job whose views are linked to the fate of the Likud party is an odd way to run foreign policy. And it’s a choice that’s only as useful as the Likud’s tenure in power.


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As to informing Canadians about Israel, Ms. Bercovici’s writings seem to qualify her more as Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy to Ottawa rather than as Ottawa’s envoy to Tel Aviv. Plainly put, she will have no credibility among Canadians on Middle East issues because we know her views in advance of her posting and we know their inspiration. This isn’t to say that they can’t be part of the conversation; they reflect an important strand of Israeli thinking. But they won’t be part of a fair-minded debate looking for solutions in the Middle East in which Canada has a role.

The Prime Minister’s Middle East visit highlighted Canada’s policy positions (as if they hadn’t already been crystal clear), and it elicited a flood of commentary, especially about relations with Israel. As Paul Heinbecker put it lucidly, Harper told the Israeli government what it wanted to hear, not what it needed to hear. David Petrasek noted that given the alignment of policy between Harper and the Israeli government, appeals to Harper to exercise traditional Canadian even-handedness on Middle East issues were “well-intended but pointless”.

Derek Burney and Fen Hampson tried valiantly to defend the government’s record, but missed the essential point. The key issue is not that Canadian policy is unbalanced or ill-considered. It’s that the Harper government has essentially outsourced Canadian Middle East policy to the Likud party by adopting its views on virtually anything even broadly touching the region, from Libya to Syria, from Iran to the United Nations. Because Canadian policies are made by others, there’s not much room for a Canadian debate on their merits.

Our new head of mission in Tel Aviv may be wondering whose views she is supposed to advance: those of the Harper government or those of the Likud party. For the moment, it’s a distinction without a difference. And that’s the problem both with this appointment and with Canada’s Middle East policy.

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