Zachariah Kay. The Diplomacy of Impartiality: Canada and Israel, 1958-1968. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2010. 138 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55458-187-0.
Reviewed by Harold Waller (McGill University)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Bureaucrats, Politicians, and Canada’s Middle East Policy
For over six decades Canada has been involved on the periphery of the Arab-Israeli conflict. During most of that period, which saw several different governments, Canada strove mightily to remain neutral between Israel and the Arabs, despite the sympathy of some of the prime ministers for Israel’s cause. The posture of the present government led by Stephen Harper appears to be a sharp break from past practice. The comparison of Harper’s stance to those of his predecessors during the 1958-68 period tells us a great deal about how Canada has changed politically. Zachariah Kay’s study documents the influence of bureaucrats in the Department of External Affairs that provided continuity and consistency to Canadian foreign policy with respect to the Middle East. One question now is whether the political echelon is capable of asserting its position rather than deferring to the professionals. Another is whether or not such a development is good for Canada.
Understandably, most studies that look at the Arab-Israeli conflict from the outside tend to focus on American and Soviet foreign policy because the two superpowers were so central in international politics. Canada, while clearly a middle power, did exercise influence beyond what one might expect from a country of its size for quite some time. The country first had to struggle to define a role for itself apart from Britain, something that it began to achieve by mid-century. Despite generally being committed to the institutions and causes of the West, such as the United Nations, NATO, the Korean War, and the general struggle against communism, Canada strove for decades to preserve a path for itself that was independent of both Britain and the United States. Without doubt, it did so successfully. But that very neutrality proved frustrating to a country like Israel that was eagerly seeking support to combat its regional isolation. And by the period covered in Kay’s book, that isolation was further compounded by the movement of the so-called Non-Aligned Nations into the Arab camp.
The author’s research focuses on the Canadian and Israeli archives. He does a good job of mining this material and comes up with some worthwhile insights, especially regarding the Canadian foreign affairs bureaucracy. Indeed, most of this slim book consists of the reporting of considerable information about what the bureaucrats and officials recorded with respect to the parties to the conflict. That is the book’s strength. As such it provides valuable insights into the thinking of decision makers and emphasizes the continuity of policy despite the frequent changes of government during the 1960s, when majority governments in Canada were rare.
Canada’s policy of “scrupulous impartiality” during the period studied, while understandable and defensible, does raise some questions (p. 100). The most important one is whether the policy was simply the external face of an underlying bias. In other words, was Canada neutral in order to balance the inclination of some of the political leadership to support Israel against the professionals’ concerns about the impact of a pro-Israel policy on the country’s trade interests? Kay does not answer these questions definitively but does suggest that there may be a point to raising such questions. Actually, what he does show is that Canadian diplomats did appear to buy in to the Arab position that there was an obligation on Israel to make the major concessions necessary to achieve peace. Thus while formally preaching neutrality, Canada did tilt toward the Arab side in certain respects. Such an approach was not seen as incompatible with impartiality. Yet the current Harper government has been roundly criticized for standing firmly with Israel, not least on the grounds that it was no longer acting impartially.
Another question that might occur to a reader relates to the issue of the importance of the information presented. Surely none of Canada’s actions or policies was crucial to the way in which history unfolded, although it should be noted that Lester B. Pearson, as a result of his efforts as foreign minister after the 1956 Suez War, won a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the documents consulted do contribute to our understanding of both the making and the content of Canadian foreign policy. In particular they shed light on what the actors understood regarding the significance of Canada’s stance.
One of the underlying themes of Canadian foreign policy since the end of World War II has been enthusiasm for the United Nations, despite the evident shortcomings of that body. In fact, support for the UN has probably been the country’s central policy principle, notwithstanding the way in which the UN has evolved. So it is surprising that Kay did not emphasize the two critical years that Canada served on the Security Council during the late 1960s. That was the real test for Canada’s impartiality, especially during the drafting of the critical Resolution 242, which is still the overall framework for Arab-Israeli peace.
While undeniably useful to anyone interested in the period studied, the book lacks contextual material. The decade covered saw many significant developments in international politics relating to the Middle East conflict, but we get little insight as to how they might have affected Canadian policymakers. In fact, the period covered is sandwiched between two of the major wars fought by Israel and the Arabs. How did those wars affect Canadian elite thinking? As Kay points out, Canadian officials were at pains to avoid labeling anyone as the aggressor in 1967. Did the Canadian failure to identify an aggressor undermine the integrity of the “scrupulous impartiality” policy?
On balance, Kay’s book is a useful source for anyone interested in the recorded inside story of the development of Canada’s Middle East foreign policy during the 1960s. However, its utility is limited by the lack of a broader analytical framework and the neglect of secondary sources that might have provided needed context.
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Harold Waller. Review of Kay, Zachariah, The Diplomacy of Impartiality: Canada and Israel, 1958-1968.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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