OTTAWA - Canada firmly backs the call by Israel's prime minister for the Palestinians to resume peace talks without conditions.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird threw Canada's support behind the tough negotiating stance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a major speech Monday in Jerusalem — one day after Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas publicly blamed each other for stalled peace efforts.
"By resisting temptations to apply preconditions to talks and by avoiding measures that would seek to prejudge the outcome of the talks, the Palestinian leadership could immediately take steps toward a more measured, stable transition to statehood," Baird said in prepared remarks.
Baird took that message to the Palestinian territories later Monday where he met with Abbas. Baird urged the Palestinian leader to make peace, recognize Israel and return to the negotiating table.
"Palestinians and Israelis deserve free states of their own," said Baird during the meeting in Ramallah. "They deserve to live in peace, security and with human dignity. To that end, both must use the responsibility of their freedom for good."
In Jerusalem, Baird praised Netanyahu for his leadership and said he was "proud" to watch his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last fall.
Baird remarks positioned Canada firmly on the Israeli side.
His hosts appreciated the warm sentiments. After a meeting with President Shimon Peres, during which Baird expressed Canada's desire to broaden its co-operation with Israel in science and technology, the elder Israeli statesman said through a spokesman that the two countries "complete" each other.
Among Arab and Muslim Canadians, relations are decidedly cooler. They criticize the Harper government for favouritism toward Israel, while other critics say the Tories have squandered Canada's reputation as a so-called "honest broker" in the Middle East process.
"For a country like Canada, the easy thing to do would be simply to go along with anti-Israeli sentiment, to get along with other countries," Baird said Monday.
"It would be easier to pretend that engaging in anti-Israeli rhetoric is being somehow even-handed and to excuse it under the false pretence of being an 'honest broker'."
For months, Israel and the Palestinians have been holding exploratory talks mediated by Jordan to find a framework for formal negotiations.
The frustration in that process showed itself Sunday when Abbas accused Israel of failing to present detailed proposals for borders and security. Netanyahu accused the Palestinian side of refusing to discuss Israel's security needs.
The quartet of international Mideast mediators — the U.S., the UN, the European Union and Russia — is urging a resumption of formal negotiations with the goal of getting an agreement by the end of the year.
"The status quo is not an option. We support a two-state solution that is negotiated by the two parties in good faith and without preconditions," Baird said, largely steering clear of the main issues of contention between the two sides.
"We believe the statement by the quartet this past September lays the foundation for a return to negotiations. We encourage both sides to accept the quartet's principles and return to sustained, direct talks. In that sense, we hold out hope for recent, helpful interventions by Jordan and others."
Baird said Israel "embodies principles that Canada values and respects. It is a beacon of light in a region that craves freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
He pledged Canada's support in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings and in the face of terrorist threats and political opposition in such forums as the UN.
"Whether it is rockets raining down on Israeli schools, or the constant barrage of rhetorical demonization, double standards and delegitimization, Israel is under attack," Baird said.
"It is symptomatic of that new ill — the new anti-Semitism."
Baird began his first full day in Israel by attending the opening of a new Holocaust education facility in Jerusalem.
Baird said the new seminars wing of the International School for Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem will play a key role in ensuring humanity doesn't forget the lessons of genocide.
The campus holds seminars each year for educators from 55 countries around the world and Israel and develops country-specific and custom-made tools for different age groups in more than 20 languages.
Jewish philanthropist Joseph Gottdenker, himself a Holocaust survivor, said Yad Vashem gives a voice and a name to each person who perished, "and restores to them the dignity of living history."
"Holocaust education enables us to remember the lessons of the past and provides guidance to a more tolerant, hopeful and brighter future," Gottdenker said.
In 2011, the school hosted 67 seminars for educators and lay leaders around the world, twice the numbers held in recent years.
Baird, a black skull cap perched on his head, emphasized the importance of Yad Vashem and its new 4,100-square-metre facility in documenting and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust.
"There is no better friend to Israel than Canada," Baird said. "We shall always be there for you, and in front of you."
On Tuesday, Baird and Flaherty continue their busy round of meetings with top Israeli financial, trade and defence officials.
— With files from Yehonathan Tommer in Jerusalem
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