The accomplished diplomat sat down with Bulletin Editor Michael Regenstreif at the Embassy of Israel in Ottawa to introduce himself to Ottawa’s Jewish community and to discuss priorities on his agenda and some of Israel’s major issues of concern.
The first week on the job was a busy one for Ambassador Rafael (Rafi) Barak, the State of Israel’s new representative in Canada.
In addition to settling into his new home in Ottawa and his new office at the Embassy of Israel, he presented his credentials to Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall; participated in Chanukah celebrations on Parliament Hill and at an Ottawa Senators game at the Canadian Tire Centre; and journeyed to Toronto to represent Israel at the Jewish National Fund’s Negev Dinner honouring Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his steadfast support for the Jewish state.
Barak, 63, was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and made aliyah to Israel at 18, spending his first year-and-a-half there on a kibbutz. Following his army service, Barak worked as a licensed tour guide while studying political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In 1977, having earned an MA, Barak joined the ministry of Foreign Affairs and served four years as a diplomatic cadet at the Israeli Embassy in Lima, Peru. Later, he would serve as Israel’s No. 2 diplomat at several embassies, including Brussels and Washington – and he headed up the embassy in Paris for a year in the absence of an appointed ambassador.
He was in Washington for five years, from 2000 to 2005, a period that included the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the second intifada.
When not stationed abroad, Barak was a high level official within the ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1993, he became chief of staff to the director general during the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians and was an important member of Israel’s negotiating team.
“For four years, I spent more time with my Palestinian neighbours than with my wife and kids,” he said.
He also served as deputy director general for European affairs. Prior to his appointment as ambassador to Canada, Barak was director general of the ministry – the equivalent of deputy minister – for three-and-a-half years.
That Israel would tap such a high level official for the ambassadorship to Canada is an indication of the importance the Jewish state places on the Israel-Canada relationship.
The ambassador is in Canada with his wife, Miriam. The Baraks have three adult children and five grandchildren.
At the Negev Dinner in Toronto, Harper announced he would make his first visit to Israel this month, helping to ensure the new ambassador’s first few weeks on the job would have an extra-busy agenda.
“We are very delighted that he’s decided to come to Israel,” Barak said, noting that Harper has an excellent relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has offered his Canadian counterpart an open invitation to visit Israel for many years.
“We’ll work with the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministry of Foreign Affairs to prepare the visit, to prepare the appointments and meetings,” and, hopefully for an official launch of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center that will be built in the Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park with the proceeds from the Toronto Negev Dinner.
Asked about his priorities as ambassador, Barak mentioned four items at the top of his agenda, some of which are obviously inter-related.
The first priority is on the economic front. Noting the excellent relations and goodwill that exist between the governments of Israel and Canada, Barak said he wants to build on that relationship, particularly in areas of economic collaboration.
“We have a free trade agreement, for example, but it should be improved and upgraded,” he said.
“We’d like to enter into new fields of co-operation, such as energy. We are the land of milk and honey, but, suddenly, we’ve discovered natural gas,” he said, suggesting Canada, with its energy expertise, would be a natural partner in developing the gas reserves.
Other areas Barak mentioned as having great potential for Israeli-Canadian co-operation included information technology, biotechnology and water management.
Barak’s second priority is on the political front, explaining the situation facing Israel to politicians – both in government and on the opposition benches – and to the media and the Canadian public, and, in the diplomatic sphere, particularly on such important issues as Iran, the conflict with the Palestinians, and changes that have been taking place in the Middle East over the past several years.
The third priority is scientific and educational co-operation and research and development, an area in which he believes there is tremendous potential.
The fourth priority he mentioned is maintaining and enhancing Israel’s relationship with Jewish communities in Canada, which is “always a priority for the Israeli ambassador.”
Noting the particularly close relationships previous Israeli ambassadors have had with Ottawa’s Jewish community, Barak said he was looking forward to getting to know the community and to attending community events here.
Turning to some of the issues of concern, the Oslo peace process veteran said it was a positive development that the current peace talks with the Palestinians are being conducted behind closed doors.
“Both sides are serious and are engaged,” he said, noting there is much skepticism on both sides about the potential for success.
“Eighty per cent of Israelis would like to come to an agreement, but 80 per cent are also skeptical that it is possible,” he said, noting a similar level of desire and skepticism among Palestinians.
On the Iran nuclear front, Barak reiterated Israel’s concern that the temporary deal negotiated by six world powers – U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany – with Iran would not stop the Iranians from proceeding on their quest for nuclear weaponry as it allows them to continue to enrich uranium.
“The agreement doesn’t cover our concerns,” Barak said, adding that Israel was pleased to see the Canadian government expressing similar concerns.
Concerning the upheavals in some parts of the Arab world over the past several years, Barak said Israel needs to maintain “a policy of strategic silence as this is not about us.”
Without mentioning Syria by name, Barak said, “Nobody wants to see a country where more than 100,000 people have been killed in his neighbourhood,” adding that maintaining good relations with Egypt and Jordan, the two countries with which it has peace treaties, and looking for new opportunities for diplomacy, was Israel’s priority in the region.