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My Introduction to the Middle East

My first introduction to the Middle East came as a result of an invitation by the Canada Israel Committee to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories.   At that time, the Canada Israel Committee sponsored trips to the Middle East for MPS to get a better understanding of the region. This trip whetted my appetite for more knowledge of the Middle East.  It was the beginning of some very interesting experiences and incredible memories. 

This chapter describes some of my experiences and memories.  Over a thirty year period I have visited the Middle East a dozen times as a parliamentarian, a businessman, and as a tourist.   Over the years, I have been able to connect with man of the Middle East leaders in an effort to bring about an interparliamentary forum in Halifax.

                                             Israeli Knesset Speaker Hon Reuvlin Rivlin

                            

 

 

 

                                              Palestinian Legislature Speaker Hon Ahmed Qurei

My grandfather, Leon Moss was a well respected Jewish businessman in Amherst which heightened my interest in the region.  My understanding is that this gives me the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship.

During this first visit to the Middle East, our group visited many locations in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  We saw the vast differences between the ancient Bedouin shepherds living in the nomadic fashion as they have for thousands of years.  Then we visited the Weizmann Institute of Science which is world leader in unlocking the mysteries of the brain.  It is truly a region full of contrast.  It is also the most concentrated collection of Christian, Jewish and Muslim history anywhere.  At every turn there is a river, lake or village that has a familiar name. 

At one point we visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. As we walked around and talked to the residents in this very cramped and dusty community, I encountered a man named Ahmad and his family who spoke English and were interested in talking to us.  To my amazement this man was born in February 1945… the same year and month as me. 

Ahmad was born in 1945 in Palestine, but his family left in 1948 immediately after the U.N. partition.  There was a threat that a war was coming between the Arab world and the Israelis. Ahmad grew up in this refugee camp in Lebanon.  He and his family lived in one cinder block room about 12 x 12.  As a refugee, Ahmad has never been allowed to work or get an education and his children were not able to work or get an education either.  They survived on donations from charitable organizations. 

I couldn’t help but think of how lucky I was to be born in Canada and not in Palestine in February 1945. Ahmad has always lived in this 12 by 12-foot cinder block room with his wife and family.  Now his children have built a second story on top of the cinder block room.  Access to upstairs is by virtue of a very unstable ladder.  

On the other hand, my family lives in a house in the country and we have two cars.  All of my children have a good education.  I have had the opportunity to own my own businesses.  Ahmad has never left his one room cinder block structure, but I have traveled extensively.    Ahmad had never left his refugee community. 

Ahmad left a lasting impression on me and motivated me to try to find a way to assist refugees. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met with Palestinian Peace Negotiator Hon Saeb Erekat about our proposed Peace Forum to be held in Halifax.   I asked how we could arrange to get the Palestinian Legislators to Halifax and he said..."We will just do it".

While in the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon I also encountered a mother with two daughters who had lost their sight. The two little girls had contracted an infection or disease which caused them to lose their sight completely. She said that she had tried all of the charities to get help, but no help was available.   I asked the mother what she would do, and she said that she “had an appointment with the Hezbollah”.  This took me by surprise as my only impression of Hezbollah was as a militant group.  I asked her how she would make contact with them, and she said that the Hezbollah had an office just around the corner and they provided aid when all else fails.  She told me that the cost of treatment would be $100 U.S.   Our group sent the money back to her after we left.  I hope that the girls were able to be successfully treated. 

At one point during my first visit to Israel, we had a briefing from the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  I noticed that the minister kept moving his sport coat to the side so that we could all see that he had a pistol in his belt holster.   His name was Benjamin Netanyahu. 

My next exposure to the Middle East came a few years later when the Honorable Joe Clark appointed me as the Foreign Affairs critic for the Progressive Conservative Party.  I decided that my first endeavor would be to learn more about this ongoing conflict. I called the Israeli embassy and asked for a representative to come over for an informal chat. The person who came was Deputy Chief of Mission, Amir Maimon. Then I called the Palestinian representative office and invited their representative, Dr. Baker Abdel Munem, to come over for an informal discussion.

 

His Excellency Amir Maimon.  Mr. Maimon is now the Israeli Ambassador to Australia

 

 

 

 

 

His Excellency Baker Abdel Munem.  Dr. Baker passed away in 2023.

The fascinating aspect of the discussions was that both representatives spent their time telling me that Canada could play an important role in the Middle East. Canada is considered a neutral country and is well respected by both sides. They both urged me to find ways to help Canada participate in building bridges between the Israelis and Palestinians.  At no time did either one criticize the other side.  I was not expecting this. 

When I reported this series of meetings back to my party leader, the Honourable Joe Clark, he immediately suggested that we invite them to a Progressive Conservative caucus meeting. I thought that this was a great idea, and it would help the caucus members understand the Middle East region in a very tangible way.

Prior to the caucus meeting, I was preparing an introduction for each one and was astonished to find that they were both born in an Israeli town called Ramla.  I had to check it twice.  The Palestinian representative was born in Ramla before the United Nations divided the Palestinian region. The Israeli representative was born in Ramla after the division and Israel was established as an independent state.

This was an amazing coincidence and only learned of it in our P.C. Caucus.  They were not aware of this common denominator and immediately started to talk about the town and the changes that had taken place since Ramla had become part of Israel.  Dr. Baker had never been back since the U.N. partition took place.   This surprising coincidence gave us all an idea of how complicated and personal this conflict is. 

Also, it turned out that the two representatives had never met. 

Again, the discussions at the caucus meeting were around Canada’s role in the Middle East.  Again, both representatives said that Canada is in a unique position of respect by both sides.  Both were strongly of the opinion that we could do much more as a country to build bridges between the two parties.

 Following these incredible meetings, I walked across the floor and sat down with the Honorable John Manley, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.  He was a Liberal Member of Parliament, and I was a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament in the third party.  However, our open system of Parliament allows MPs to meet with any minister almost any day when the House is sitting. I outlined how these Israeli and Palestinian meetings unfolded and that both representatives felt Canada could do much more to build bridges. The Hon John Manley agreed.  

I proposed that we invite some legislators from the Israeli Knesset and the Palestinian legislature in Ramallah to come to Canada and meet with Canadian Members of Parliament to open a dialog.  Mr. Manley replied that this is a good idea, but his budget had been exhausted for that year. Perhaps next year they could look at some version of this proposal. I appreciated Mr. Manley’s openness and understood his budget concerns.

When I returned to my office, I thought this proposal deserves more effort. I decided to write to several organizations seeking private funding for such an international forum of Israelis, Palestinians, and Canadians. I wrote to Jewish organizations, Muslim organizations, Air Canada, Onex Corp, Ford Motor Company, Bank of Nova Scotia, SNC Lavalin, and others.  To my amazement, every single one offered money or services. Even before I could finish my presentation Air Canada agreed to provide all of the air transport for the Palestinians and the Israelis.  

Three days after I sent the letters requesting donations, I followed up each one with a phone call.  When I called Mr. Gerry Schwartz of Onex, I asked if he had received my letter.  His reply was “Yes ….did you receive my cheque”. I couldn’t believe it.   I had only met him once when he was testifying at a parliamentary committee meeting. I thanked him for his contribution and he said, …“You are doing God’s work”. 

The Bank of Nova Scotia sent a donation right away.  Then a little later, the regional manager called to say that the bank had discussed the plan at a board meeting, and they decided that they would make a second contribution.   

The Ford Motor Company offered to provide all of the cars and vans required for transportation.

St Mary’s University offered to provide interpreters from their staff and student body.

Mayor of Halifax Peter Kelly offered all his chamber facilities for the meetings as we planned to have this peace forum in Halifax. 

The Catholic Archbishop of Halifax, Reverend Terrence Pendergast offered to arrange an ecumenical celebration and to welcome the visitors. 

A local businessman offered to host the legislators on his sailboat for a harbour tour.  It was shaping up to be an amazing event.

I couldn’t help but conclude that Canadians very much want their government to help bring a resolution to this Middle East conflict.  When Canadians open their wallets, they are serious.  I couldn’t think of another cause which would have such a positive and generous reaction.

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I soon felt that I had enough funding and contributions to pay for all of the accommodations, transportation, and entertainment for the visiting Israeli and Palestinian legislators. I went back across the floor of the House of Commons to sit with the Hon John Manley again. I asked John if he still felt the plan was a good idea and he said …“Yes it’s a good idea but I do not have the money in the budget”.  I was able to say…  “That’s not a problem…. I have collected the money to cover everything except security which would be the responsibility of the Government of Canada”.   With no hesitation he said …“ I am going to the Middle East next week and you can come with me and we’ll see how far we can get with this proposal”.    Imagine.

Before we departed for Israel, I told the Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission to Canada, His Excellency Amir Maimon, that I was going to Israel with the minister, but that I didn’t think that I was qualified to take this any further.  He encouraged me to go forward and then he said something that I have never forgotten.   He said…. “Just be Bill Casey”.    

At first when we arrived in Israel, Hon John Manley focused on the Prime Ministers and Presidents, and I met with the Speakers of the Israeli Knesset and the Legislature in Ramallah.   This was the first time that I met Hon Shimon Peres who I have always admired as a great leader.   Mr. Peres served in several leadership posts including President and Prime Minister of Israel.   As a dedicated legislator himself, he thought that the proposal for legislators to work to together on an ongoing basis was an excellent idea.    The last time we met, I commented that we had now met seven times.  He said… “Yes and we will meet seven more”.   I wish.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 2016 at 93. 

 

 

 

Honourable Shimon Peres with my son Michael and me.

 

When I first entered Gaza from Israel for the first time, it felt like I was leaving a colour movie and going to a black and white movie. All of the buildings were there but there was no colour.  There were not a lot of cars or trucks but there were lots of little wagons pulled by donkeys.  It really struck me as an outdated and bleak place to live.  

In Gaza, Hon John Manley and I split up into two different armoured motorcades.   He was to meet President Arafat and I was to meet with Members of the Palestinian Legislature.  We always traveled fast through the streets as a security measure.  One time we were speeding down a street going way too fast and out from a corner came John Manley’s motorcade speeding way too fast.  A bit of fast reaction and an accident was avoided, but it was too close for comfort. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me with Palestinian Legislators in Gaza

After meeting Ahmad in the cinder block house in the refugee camp in Lebanon, Hon John Manley and his group (including me) had a meeting with Israeli President Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem.   The plight of Ahmad and his family and the other refugees in the refugee camp was still very much on my mind.   After the meeting, I approached President Sharon asked if there was something more we could do to help the refugees in the refugee camps.  It was not a welcome question. Everybody around us stepped back 10 steps as President Sharon voiced his strong opinion about the refugees. Little did I know that he had been somehow accused of complicity in a massacre of refugees in a refugee camp in Lebanon when he was Minister of Defence.  His reaction was immediate and aggressive.    To say that I touched a nerve was an understatement.

 

 

 

 

 

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Bill before I asked about the refugees.

 

At the time, the Hon Avraham Burg was the speaker of the Israeli Knesset and he was also very supportive of the project.  He had previously served as the President of Israel.  He was of the opinion that the Israelis would be participate, but it would be up to each Member of the Knesset to decide.  He introduced me to several members who were keen to participate. 

Later, when Speaker Avraham Burg came to Canada to meet with our Speaker, the Hon Peter Milliken, I was invited to join them for dinner.  I also had lunch with Mr. Burg the last time I was in Israel in 2018.   He is now retired but is still active as a leader in an organization of retired politicians.  The group is called the Israeli Peace Parliament, and they too are looking for ways to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis.  They would welcome the chance to work with a group of Canadians with the same goals.   My opinion is that Mr. Burg is a great person.  He is also a dedicated vegetarian.  At lunch, he told me that he won’t eat anything that ever had a mother.   I never heard that expression before. 

Next we went to Ramallah where I met with Palestinian Speaker Ahmad Queri, better known as Abu Alaa.   This was my first-time meeting President Yasser Arafat as well.  However, I spent my time with Speaker Queri talking about arrangements for the proposed Halifax Peace Forum.   He was very supportive and just pointed out that Palestinian politicians had a challenge getting visas to come to Canada.  I thought that we could get lots of help with that if everything came together.  Over the years, I also met with Abu Alaa several times. He served as Speaker but also as Palestinian Prime Minister.

 

Bill with former Speaker Avraham Burg in Jerusalem 2018 at a meeting of the Israeli Peace Parliament.

By the end of summer 2001, we were ready to proceed with the Halifax Peace Forum.  Mr. Mark Entwistle had joined me as Executive Assistant in this project and his knowledge of international negotiations was priceless.  Previously he served as Canada’s ambassador to Cuba.  He did much of the organizing and confirming of arrangements.  All parties had agreed, and we had the travel arrangements made and approved.  The forums were booked for October 17 and 18th, 2001.

Then September 11 happened.

On September 11, 2001, Mark Entwistle and I were meeting with the Halifax Chief of Police putting the finished touches on the security for the Halifax Peace Forum.  We were interrupted by the chief’s assistant who told us that a plane had just hit the World Trade Towers in New York.   We took note of it and carried on with our planning.  A few minutes later the assistant came back in and said that a second plane had hit the World Trade Towers, and that we should turn on the television.   At that moment everything came to a stand still. 

Right away, Mark and I tried to get a flight back to Ottawa but all flights in Canada were grounded.  I think that we rented the last rental car in Halifax and started to head back.  Another couple was going down the rows of rental car desks at the airport trying to rent a car to get to Ottawa but none were available.  Mark and I offered to take them with us and they accepted.   Meanwhile planes were landing at the Halifax Airport at an unheard-of rate. 

The September 11 attack on the United States ended any possibility of the Halifax Peace Forum happening in 2001.   For years after that, Palestinian legislators were prevented from travel by air, and both Israeli and Palestinian politicians wanted to stay home.   Like many projects interrupted by 9/11, all of our planning and connections ceased.   

However we didn’t give up. 

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