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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Paul Knox PAUL

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It's a matter of interpretation

By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update

CALGARY — U.S. President George W. Bush says the United States will support a Palestinian state — some kind of Palestinian state — if the Palestinian people are co-operative enough to un-elect Yasser Arafat.

His European allies don't agree. They say you have to work with the leaders people give you.

Where does Canada stand? With Mr. Bush or with the Europeans?

In many countries you could ask the prime minister or president. In Canada, asking the head of the country's government often makes things more confusing.

Jean Chrétien was quizzed about Mr. Bush's latest Middle East initiative as the two leaders posed for photographers in Kananaskis, Alta., where Mr. Chrétien will preside over the Group of Eight summit opening Wednesday.

Here, for the record, is what Mr. Chrétien said:

"We need in this part of the world an Israel that is secure and well protected and eventually a state for Israel [One assumes he meant the Palestinians].

"The situation of Jerusalem will always be complicated, but we have to secure two countries there that can live in peace.

"There will be elections, I'm told there will be elections before the end of the year. We hope it will be a real election that will produce someone that is democratically elected.

"The President talked about perhaps it would be better to replace Mr. Arafat. I don't have a specific point of view on that. I will think it might be a good thing. I don't want to comment on that. ... It's very important to have a constitution and a real state alongside Israel that has to be secure and well protected."

That "might be a good thing" part suggested strongly that Mr. Chrétien was endorsing Mr. Bush's call for a change in Palestinian leadership. It was considerably less forthright than Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham's statement earlier in the day.

"We do not believe that we would say who is going to be the leader of the Palestinians," Mr. Graham said. "We believe it is very important for them to choose their own leaders."

So which is it? Can Canada live with Mr. Arafat? Or, like Mr. Bush, is Canada into "regime change"?

On to a late-night briefing with senior Canadian officials, the kind who offer to deconstruct the events of the day on the condition that their names not be used. Where, they were asked, does Canada stand?

Now, a basic principle of political log-rolling is this: When the going gets tough, come down squarely on the side of democracy.

So Official No. 1 replied: "The Prime Minister insisted on the fact that we wish to see well-organized democratic elections in the Palestinian territory. We will support it, we will help with its organization, and we leave the decision and the results to the Palestinians."

Someone noted that the Prime Minister had indeed said that Mr. Arafat's departure might be a good thing.

"He was speculative," Official No. 2 said. "He was making an emphasis in his comments, about saying after that, he was for free elections."

All right, so is Canada closer to the U.S. side or the European side?

Neither, No. 1 said.

So does that mean that Canada, which is about to preside over the annual summit of the world's most powerful nations, has no position on one of the key subjects up for discussion?

No. 1: "The Prime Minister said he doesn't have a view as to whether or not we should tell the Palestinians that they should remove Mr. Arafat."

Would Canada automatically recognize the result of a Palestinian election?

No. 1: "If the Palestinians decide to elect a new leader this will be because they have decided that it might be a good thing. ..."

Does Mr. Chrétien support Mr. Bush's call for new Palestinian leadership?

No. 1: "The new leadership will be elected. I don't know who will be elected."

But surely it won't be a new leader if Mr. Arafat is elected."

No. 1, to laughter: "He will be newly elected."

After a few more exchanges like that, it was clear the subject was exhausted.

"Our job here is to interpret what the Prime Minister said ... and we've done that to the best of our abilities," No. 2 said. You almost felt a touch of sympathy.

In the event, the Palestinian Authority has announced an election, and Mr. Arafat says he will stand for re-election. So at some point or another, Canada may still have to decide: Can the world live with Mr. Arafat or not?

The answer: Your guess is as good as mine.

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