Palestinian minister praises Canada, says won't be 'hostage' to past words

OTTAWA – Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki tossed Canada an olive branch Thursday, seeking to defuse recent tensions by saying there’s no point in either side being held hostage by past rhetoric.

His host, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, tossed one back — committing to extend Canada’s lucrative, multi-year aid commitment to the Palestinian Authority, calling it some of the country’s best-spent development dollars.

The two politicians basked in bonhomie during a joint Ottawa news conference outside the Governor General’s official guest house next to Rideau Hall.

“Many words have been said last year, the year before, by all of us,” Al-Malki said.

“And if we want really to see ourselves hostage to these words then we cannot really move anywhere.”

The Harper government’s unabashed support of Israel over the last seven years has fuelled criticism and alienated many in the Arab and Muslim world, in Canada and abroad. Some analysts have questioned whether Canada can be a neutral participant in the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinians were angered when Baird met an Israeli cabinet minister this past April in East Jerusalem — disputed territory which the Palestinians and the United Nations consider occupied land.

The Harper government opposed the successful Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the UN and said there would be consequences, also drawing the ire of the Palestinians.

That raised doubts about whether Canada’s $300 million, five-year aid pledge to the Palestinian Authority, which was due to expire in March, would be axed.

But Baird said Thursday the commitment has been extended for one year because not all the money has been spent. And he committed to a similar-long term package.

“There are precious few examples of Canadian development assistance that have been more successful than this one. It has been incredibly successful,” he said.

“We’ll be in looking at something in the long-term.… We’re certainly very keen to build on the multi-year investments we’ve made in the past.”

Al-Malki said Canada’s contribution has been a great help to the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to build institutions and capacity and that’s a step towards finding peace with Israel.

Al-Malki demurred when asked what he thought of Baird’s East Jerusalem visit.

“I really look at concrete actions, projects, co-operation, commitment and I’ve seen that — a lot of it — from Canada and I’m very much encouraged with it. This is how I want to see the relationship.”

Al-Malki said he was impressed with Baird’s visit to Ramallah, also in April, that laid the groundwork for his trip to Ottawa this week.

Baird also deflected when he was asked to denounce Israel’s continued construction of settlements in Palestinian territory, something Canada’s major allies, including the U.S., have already done.

Baird said he was trying to avoid “the pile-on Israel” that is seen “far too often at United Nations.”

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