OTTAWA – With hope of an Israel-Gaza ceasefire beckoning Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird hailed the “miracle” of a Zionist Israel while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began the hard diplomatic work of brokering an end to the violence.
Speaking to a glittering Jewish community fundraising gala, Baird called the birth of Israel a “miracle to behold,” describing it as “a phoenix-like rising … from a barren desert to the dynamic country we see today.”
Earlier on Tuesday, sprinting from President Barack Obama’s Cambodian tour, Clinton arrived in Jerusalem, held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and joined him at a news conference.
“The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Clinton declared.
Unlike Clinton, Baird offered no vestige of equivocation in his keynote speech to the Jewish National Fund’s annual Negev Dinner, held at Ottawa’s opulent National Gallery.
“I want to share reflections on how I came to be such a strong supporter of Israel and why Israel holds such a special place in my heart,” Baird said in prepared remarks.
Hamas, he said, was targeting innocent civilians with its onslaught of rockets aimed at Israel in “a despicable act of terror.”
He explained how the Harper government’s unabashed support of Israel — wildly unpopular among most in Canada’s Arab and Muslim communities — has manifested itself in recent days.
“On Twitter, one person said I supported the burning of children in Gaza. Another accused me of playing settler-colonial diplomacy with the lives of Palestinians,” he said.
“Views like this are rooted in ignorance, or worse … much worse.”
Baird said his safe, middle-class upbringing in suburban Ottawa stood in stark contrast to the suffering and struggle of the Jewish people to build a homeland in Israel.
“After 2,000 years of bitter exile, Zionism — the national expression of the Jewish people gave voice and shape to a dream that never left the Jewish conscience: the return of world Jewry to its ancestral homeland,” he said.
“It is quite simply breathtaking to behold what people like Theodor Herzl, Eliezer Ben- Yehuda and Chaim Weizmann accomplished against all odds. It’s simply a miracle to behold.”
He extolled his grandfather, without naming him, for going to war to fight the Nazis in the Second World War.
“I’m deeply influenced by his contribution to combating an evil which sought to exterminate the Jewish people … that moment in history when the devil almost drove a stake through the heart of humanity,” Baird told his audience.
“The heavy spirit, the knotted stomach, and the paralysis of shock I felt as I learned details of the horrors of the Nazi era have been ingrained in my soul; they shook me to my core and have become part of my DNA.”
Baird recalled meeting a Holocaust survivor in Boston who clasped him hard and told him: “I wish there were more people like you before the war.”
He reiterated past complaints that the United Nations is anti-Israeli and he criticized the “media” for casting Israel as the aggressor in the current round of violence.
Clinton also pledged U.S. support for Israel and its “enduring commitment” to its people, calling for an end to the Gaza rocket fire on Israel.
Clinton affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, including its Iron Dome missile defence system, which the U.S. has supported.
“But no defence is perfect,” Clinton remarked. “And our hearts break for the loss of every civilian — Israeli and Palestinian — and for all those who have been wounded or who are living in fear and danger.”
She laid out her plan for the days ahead — a vigorous round of shuttle diplomacy to the West Bank for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then to Cairo for talks with Egypt’s new leaders.
The U.S., Clinton said, wants “an outcome that bolsters security for the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region.”