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Israeli cabinet minister's unofficial visit comes amid strained relations

The Israeli flag flies with the Peace Tower in the background on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 21, 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA — An Israeli cabinet minister's plan to visit Canada next week comes amid an already turbulent relationship between Ottawa and that country's far-right government — and it's a trip that protocol experts say falls outside diplomatic norms.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli is scheduled to speak next weekat a private Christian college near Toronto run by a controversial evangelical Christian leader. He will also attenda celebration of the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel on Parliament Hill, hosted by an unofficial grouping of MPs.

Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Marilyne Guèvremont said in an email that the trip is a "private visit, not an official one."

"As is customary for foreign dignitaries, limited protocol courtesies will be in place," Guèvremont said.

Two protocol experts warn not arranging the trip through official diplomatic channels could lead to embarrassment forboth the Canadian and Israeli governments.

"The potential for embarrassment is if something happens, if there was an incident," said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Chikli's planned visit came to light through an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which reported that the federal Liberal government first learned of the visit when Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis invited all MPs in an email to an event on the Hill.

Lewis runs the Canadian Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus, an unofficial grouping of mostly Christian MPs that advocates for Israel's capital to be recognized as Jerusalem. Canada and several other countries reject that idea, arguing it undercuts the chance of a two-state solution with Palestinians.

In a statement, Lewis said she invited Chikli to Ottawa after learning he'd already be headed to Toronto.

"As head of the Canadian Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus, I learned of the minister's planned visit to Canada and welcomed his offer to participate in our celebration of the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel," she wrote.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who heads the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group, said that Lewis's invite to all MPs for that event was the first time he had heard of Chikli's visit.

Housefather runs a different, official parliamentary group that works with Global Affairs Canada to welcome foreign dignitaries and helps inform official Canadian visits abroad.

Haaretz reported that Ottawa raised concerns with the Israeli ambassador about the visit. But the Israeli embassy would only say that it "spoke with and conveyed all relevant information pertaining to the visit with our relevant counterparts in Parliament and government, as the information was received."

The embassy added that it had been working closely with officials in Israel and community groups in Canada to facilitate a productive visit, which involves events in Montreal and Toronto that are still being planned.

Roy Norton, who served as Canada's protocol chief from 2016 to 2019, said it's uncommon to have a foreign government minister speak at a public event in Canadawithout going through the protocol office.

"It is a little bit incongruous that on a private visit, he would be here to engage in affairs related to his portfolio," said Norton.

Robertson said a cabinet minister of any country would normally travel on a diplomatic passport and have their embassy make arrangements for their visit, unless they were here for a vacation.

He added that it's "common sense" that a visiting dignitary would be in touch with their embassy and Global Affairs Canada — for security reasons, if nothing else.

"You'd want to know who's here, and is there any kind of threat, and if so, then there's some precautions put in," he said.

The federal Liberals are also raising concerns about Chikli's speaking engagement at Canada Christian College.

The college is run by Charles McVety, a preacher whom the Ontario legislature condemned in 2020 for "extreme and hateful" language, citing his comments about LGBTQ people and Muslims.

The Trudeau government is accusing the Conservatives of aligning with McVety, though MP Leslyn Lewis said she's not involved with that part of Chikli's visit.

A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly wrote that the visit will "showcase far-right activists and elevate intolerant rhetoric." The statement criticized Conservatives, but not Chikli himself.

Lewis was criticized by the Liberals in February for meeting with right-wing German politician Christine Anderson, whose party stands accused of downplaying Nazi crimes. Anderson was also visiting Canada at the time.

Liberal MP Ya'ara Saks told Haaretz she complained to the embassy and Israeli officials about the "back-channel" planning and involvement with McVety.

“I was highly disappointed to see this from the Israeli government,” she said.

Canada says Israel remains one of its closest friends, but Ottawa has been increasingly critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's moves to constrain the power of judges and allow more settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

Housefather's committee is meeting with Israeli government and opposition politicians to understand perspectives on the judicial reform, and sort out how Canada should respond.

Norton, who is a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, said those ongoing concerns might have actually led Ottawa to advise against having Chikli visit Canada, had officials gone through the regular protocol.

MPs of any stripe can request protocol services to help facilitate a visit, at which point regional experts in the department would indicate how a visit fits in with Canada's interests.

"I'm sure that the people (at GAC) would be concerned that … in the context of the visit, he might incite radical opinion or opinion that isn't consistent with (Canadian) government policy," Norton said.

Norton said the Chikli visit isn't a major diplomatic incident, but it certainly makes things awkward for Ottawa.

"It's not the preferred way to go, but members of Parliament are independent of the government," he said. "You just deal with it, and try to minimize the downsides."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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