Rafael Barak had spent less than one week in Ottawa in his new shoes as Israel’s ambassador to Canada when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his first official visit to the Middle Eastern country.
“As an ambassador I cannot ask for more,” Mr. Barak told Embassy on Dec. 11.
Mr. Harper announced on Dec. 1 at a dinner in Toronto that he would be visiting Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in January.
“He will be very, very well received,” said Mr. Barak, who comes to Ottawa after serving as deputy minister at his foreign ministry.
Mr. Barak said the visit would include meetings with the Israeli prime minister, president and leader of the opposition, along with a tour of historical sites.
The leaders would likely discuss regional matters, such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as bilateral issues.
Mr. Barak said he expects an announcement on the start of negotiations to update the Canada-Israel free trade deal, which came into force in 2007. The Harper government announced in 2010 the two sides would engage in exploratory talks towards updating a deal.
“It’s important for us to develop our trade, this is something that should be done, a common effort that should be deployed,” Mr. Barak said.
Updating the deal is important because the original one didn’t include chapters addressing services or aspects related to the environment or electronic trade, he said.
Mr. Barak said other areas that could be discussed between leaders when they meet are energy, innovation, biotechnology and more exchanges of scholars from each country.
“This is a special visit due to the friendship, due to the relationship between the prime ministers,” he said.
The Harper government is perceived as strongly pro-Israel; Mr. Barak attributed this idea of steadfast support to shared values.
“I feel there is a commonality in interest—Canada is a very objective country, they address the issues the way we address them, what is right is right,” he said.
He said the two countries were fairly aligned in their responses to the nuclear deal five major powers brokered with Iran in November.
Foreign Minister John Baird expressed much skepticism over the deal, and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the deal, calling it a “historic mistake.”
“Definitely we are very satisfied by the Canadian response, we expressed also the same skepticism that Canada declared on the agreement,” Mr. Barak said. “We feel that Iran is not only for Israel, but for countries in the region and the world, a big threat.”
As for Mr. Harper’s tour of Israel during his trip? Mr. Barak, who used to work as a tour guide in Israel, said he would leave that to those still in the profession.
“There are professionals who are making a living on that, so I will not dare to intervene,” he said with a smile.
Cow herder, tour guide, diplomat
Mr. Barak was 18 years old when he moved to Israel from Uruguay.
“They told me, ‘You were born in South America, surely you know how to ride horses?’ And I said, ‘The only horse I rode in my life was a small pony…to get a picture with my father.’”
He would go on to live on a kibbutz, a communal settlement of people that was traditionally based on agriculture, and herd cows. About half of the population in Israel is born abroad, so Mr. Barak found his place in the country, he said.
He did his obligatory term of service in the army and then went on to university to study history and political science. During that time, he also worked as a tour guide. He said people’s impressions or feelings about Israel were mostly based on one of two things—the Bible, or what they had seen on television. He took issue with the latter, saying it didn’t give the “real picture.”
He said it was a dual dialogue between the tourists and himself.
“You learn a lot about those who are coming to Israel, about their concerns, about the way they saw Israel before,” Mr. Barak said, adding that they would also come to discuss sports and music together.
In turn, he would try to give them facts about not only archeological sites, but also how Israelis live.
“Israelis go to the army for a compulsory service of three years, and the ladies go for two years, [then] we are running to the university to finalize very rapidly—because generally quite a number of Israelis are already 22, 23, 24, so they are already married, some of them have kids—how to deal with this,” he said.
He ultimately joined the foreign service and went off on his first posting to Peru. During the 1990s Mr. Barak served as chief co-ordinator for negotiations with the Palestinians under the Oslo peace process. He co-ordinated talks on things like fisheries, archeology, education, water and electricity.
“I spent more time with my Palestinian colleagues than with my wife and kids—it was almost four years,” he said with a laugh.
While challenging, the experience was an interesting one, he said. “It’s like the conductor of a big symphonic orchestra and you have to conduct [so] that all the musicians will play the same music,” Mr. Barak said.
“We should always be optimistic because we don’t have any alternative,” Mr. Barak said of the current talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Barak has also served as a diplomat in Brussels, as minister plenipotentiary and deputy chief of mission in Washington and as chargé d’affaires in Paris.
Economic ties top of mind
Mr. Barak has been making his rounds from minister to minister and other government officials to introduce himself since he arrived in Ottawa.
“I’m trying to build this network of connections,” he said. “Also in this country is a very important Jewish-Canadian community that I see also as part of my responsibilities to keep important contacts with them.”
During his posting, Mr. Barak would like to see a boost to economic ties and he said the trade deal should help to do this.
“I think the economic relations between Canada and Israel deserve more emphasis and more efforts from our part.”
He said some of the main areas in which they hope to increase co-operation include innovation, energy and biotechnology. “We would like to see more and more Canadians investing in my country,” he said. “Venture capitals are also very warmly invited to invest in our high-tech sector.”
Mr. Barak also plans to explore the provinces. “Canada is a very vast country and…we understood that it’s important to go to the provinces and to talk to all the local authorities and to find there the projects and programs that can bring us together,” he said.