Canada's Baird denounces ICC war crimes probe of Israel

Hazel Ward
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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister,John Baird leaves the Foreign Affairs ministry after meeting with his Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Maliki on January 18, 2015 in the West Bank city of Ramallah

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister,John Baird leaves the Foreign Affairs ministry after meeting with his Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Maliki on January 18, 2015 in the West Bank city of Ramallah (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Canada's top diplomat denounced Sunday the International Criminal Court for opening a preliminary probe into possible war crimes by Israel, which counts on his country as one of its staunchest allies.

In a brief statement to reporters, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the ICC's decision was "deeply regretable" and would feature in his meetings with Israeli officials.

"We look forward to discussing a range of issues, from trade to security, to the deeply regretable decision at the ICC," he said before meeting Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman.

The ICC said on Friday it was opening "a preliminary examination" into Israel's actions, which will cover a period including last summer's war in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the move as "scandalous" and Washington said it was a "tragic irony" that the Jewish state, which had been hit by "thousands of terrorist rockets... is now being scrutinised by the ICC".

Canada played a central role in establishing the ICC and is a key supporter of the court -- a fact which was not lost on Israel.

"We think it is completely unacceptable that a terrorist organisation like Hamas will be able to file a lawsuit against Israel," Lieberman said, standing at Baird's side.

"It's making a mockery of international law and the opposition of one of the founders of the ICC is very important, maybe crucial," he said.

- Eggs thrown at motorcade -

"If we don't see a real dramatic change in (the Palestinians') position, we will ask all our friends to stop any funding for the ICC," he said.

Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also currently visiting Israel, is the biggest financial backer of the ICC, contributing 20.4 million euros ($23.6 million) in 2014, according to figures up to June 30.

Canada contributed 5.6 million euros ($6.5 million) to the court's annual budget.

Earlier, during talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki, Baird warned against pursuing a diplomatic agenda that could prejudice the outcome of any future talks with Israel.

"I asked that the minister strongly reconsider the consequences of moving forward with any action that may be counterproductive to a negotiated solution with the state of Israel," Baird said in a statement.

As he left Ramallah for Jerusalem, angry young Palestinian protestors were seen hurling eggs at his motorcade.

Hearing of Baird's Ramallah incident, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin broke from protocol and left his residence to greet Baird by his vehicle at the beginning of their meeting.

Rivlin described the ICC's decision to investigate Israel as "blasphemy against international law," and Baird assured the Israeli leader Canada would assist Israel in its legal battle.

"In the court of international opinion, Israel already has one hand tied firmly behind its back, and we will not allow the international community to tie the other hand as well," Baird said, according to a statement from Rivlin's office.

Canada is a steadfast ally of Israel, and was one of the few countries that opposed a successful Palestinian bid to win upgraded status at the United Nations in 2012.

During last summer's 50-day war in Gaza, which left nearly 2,200 Palestinians dead and drew sharp international condemnation, Canada said Israel had the right to defend itself and blamed the bloodshed on Hamas.

In 2013, Baird angered the Palestinians by meeting an Israeli official in occupied east Jerusalem.

Such a move is routinely avoided by visiting diplomats because it could be seen as legitimising Israel's annexation of the eastern sector of the city following the 1967 Six Day War.

The annexation was not recognised internationally.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who did not meet with Baird, expressed anger over Canada's support for Israel and its attempts to block Palestinian diplomatic initiatives aimed at securing statehood.

"We regret the Canadian government's decision to stand on the wrong side of history by blindly supporting the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies," he said in a statement.