OTTAWA – Canada abstained from a contentious United Nations vote Thursday that delivered a resounding rebuke to Donald Trump over his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The UN General Assembly voted 128-9 in favour of a resolution declaring the U.S. president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital to be null and void.
Thirty-five countries, including Canada, abstained — drawing criticism from the country’s leading Jewish affairs organization.
The vote placed Canada in a difficult situation because Trump had threatened to retaliate against countries that supported the resolution. It came as Canada is in the midst of a tough renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with a protectionist Trump administration that has threatened to tear up the deal.
Shortly before the vote, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed that Canada would abstain and said the Canadian government was of the view the resolution never should have landed on the floor of the General Assembly.
“We are disappointed that this resolution is one sided and does not advance prospects for peace to which we aspire, which is why we have abstained on today’s vote,” Marc-Andre Blanchard, Canada’s UN ambassador told the General Assembly.
Blanchard said Canada wants to emphasize that Jerusalem has special significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
“Denying the connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths undermines the integrity of the site for all. We also reiterate the need to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s Holy sites.”
David Cape, the president of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said he appreciated that Canada acknowledged the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, “and correctly described the resolution as one-sided and unhelpful.”
“That said,” he added, “we would have preferred for Canada to have voted no in order to send a clear message that it rejects continued efforts to use the UN as a platform to attack, de-legitimize, vilify, and isolate Israel.”
Earlier Thursday, Adam Austen, Freeland’s spokesman, reiterated Canada’s long-standing position on the divisive issue.
“The status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This has been the policy of consecutive governments, both Liberal and Conservative.”
Freeland discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a meeting Tuesday on Parliament Hill, after which she suggested they had agreed to disagree.
“Canada and the United States have different views on issues and I think that we have a strong enough relationship — both our two countries and Rex and I personally — that we’re able to be candid about those differences and explain them to one another,” said Freeland, standing next to Tillerson.
Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, said Thursday that the world body’s castigation of Israel is wrong and harms its credibility. She also said the U.S. decision to move its Israeli embassy is final.
She raised the prospect of the U.S. not continuing its financial support of the UN, noting that her country is by far the largest contributor to the UN and its agencies, helping to feed, clothe and educate people, sustain fragile peace, and hold outlaw regimes accountable.
“We also have a legitimate expectation that our goodwill is recognized and respected,” Haley said.
“We have an obligation to demand more for our investment; and if our investment fails we have an obligation to spend our resources in more productive ways.”
Bessma Momani, a senior fellow and Middle East expert with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation said the threat of retaliation shouldn’t influence how Canada votes on the Jerusalem resolution.
“Canada may find itself in a tough position as we try to renegotiate a NAFTA deal, but we should stand with the international community and wider expert opinion that the U.S. move is unnecessary, counterproductive, and toxic,” she said.
“Moreover, there’s power in a collective response against Trump and we should take comfort in that.”
— with files from Alexander Panetta