|Prime Minister Harper in the Knesset|
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be in the Middle East until Saturday. Earlier today, he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He also visited the Kotel - the "Wailing Wall" - as well as Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. At a state dinner in the evening, the PM took the stage and tickled the ivories while signing a song or two. Sounds like it must have been a fun event. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend.
|Prime Minister Harper in Israel - at the Piano|
Unquestionably, the main event of the PM's trip was his speech at the Knesset - Israel's Parliament, yesterday afternoon. The speech has attracted a great deal of attention in Canada and in Israel. For ease of reference, here is the link to the full text: PM Harper Address to Knesset
Here is the link to the video of the full speech, which was delivered in English and French by Harper. The speech was streamed live on CBC, the Israeli Knesset channel and some other channels.
PM Harper's speech was quite remarkable. It was the first speech delivered in the Knesset by a Canadian Prime Minister. It touched on a range of issues including Canada's regrettable refusal to allow more Jews to come to Canada at the time of the Holocaust, the continuing refusal of the UN to treat Israel as a full member nation with all of the associated committee privileges, the existential nuclear threat to Israel posed by Iran and the rise of new anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. Canadian Jews must have been very proud to hear this speech in Israel's Knesset.
Although the policies of this Conservative government have been attacked by some as overly biased towards Israel, PM Harper called, quite clearly, for a two-state solution and an Independent Palestinian State, which he noted "must" come about. This came on a day in which he had visited Ramallah earlier and pledged $66 Million to the Palestinian Authority while meeting with Palestinian President Abbas. Harper also noted that Canada would be among the first countries to recognize a new Palestinian state that was formed through a process of negotiation with Israel.
But Harper also denounced those who blame Israel for all of the Middle East's problems, and he attacked those who would call Israel an apartheid state. At that point in his speech, two Israeli-Arab MKs began to heckle the Prime Minister and were then engaged in short exchange by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The two MKs then got up and left, after arguing that Israel's treatment of its Arab minority population and Bedouin population was, in fact, "apartheid." The irony was not lost on Netanyahu, who had pointed out earlier that the Israeli Parliament was probably one of the freest places in the Middle East for the expression of these types of dissenting views. The very fact that Israel has Arab MKs, an Arab Supreme Court judge, and countless other fully integrated institutions makes it extremely insulting and inaccurate to refer to Israel as an apartheid state - and even more insulting to people who lived through South African apartheid.
This whole issue of whether Israel and the Palestinians should be completely divided as part of a peace deal has drawn a great deal of attention in Israel over the past few weeks. Minister Yair Lapid has called for a full separation of the two peoples for the mutual benefit of both. Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made similar suggestions. The issue is complicated since Israel has a large Arab minority population of Arab Israeli citizens Would they continue to be citizens of Israel or would they now be citizens of Palestine? Critics have called these proposals a form of "ethnic cleansing." But the essence of a "two-state solution" is that one would be the "homeland" for the Jewish people and the other state would be the homeland for the Palestinian people and the two peoples would each benefit from having their respective homelands.
In previous peace talks, including those chaired by President Clinton, the Palestinians were demanding that their state be free and clear of any Jews, while demanding that Israel agree to accept hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel (not the nascent Palestinian State). Some Palestinian negotiators are still making this demand. But surely this is twisted and backwards. It makes eminent sense that the Palestinian refugee problem would be solved through immigration by Palestinian refugees to the newly formed Palestinian state - not to Israel.
President Obama himself raised the idea of 1967 borders with "land swaps." What would "land swaps" mean? It would mean that Israel would agree to retain some of the settlement areas in the West Bank (Judea and Samara) (with their residents) in exchange for some heavily Arab populated areas in what is now Israel. No one would move, give up their homes or be "transferred." But the territories, with their residents, would be exchanged.
Minister Lieberman picked up on this idea and suggested that it would be a sensible solution. Even John Kerry's proposal, judging from what has been leaked so far, seems to contain something along these lines. But the Israeli Arabs (understandably, as Netanyahu stated in the Knesset yesterday) were extremely upset at this idea. Some Israeli Arabs indicated that in this type of case, they would leave their homes and move to Haifa (i.e. stay in Israel) rather than be part of a new Palestinian State.
Well, isn't that an interesting answer to the comments made by MK Tibi yesterday? Some Palestinian Israelis would rather leave their homes and move to another part of Israel rather than become citizens of a newly formed Palestinian State while staying in their own homes and communities. In other words, they would rather continue to be part of an "apartheid state", as they describe it, than come under Palestinian Authority. Of course, for some, this is because they are not willing to accede to a "two-state solution." They prefer a "one-state solution" under which all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories would be one state, with equal rights for everyone. For Israel, this would be demographic suicide and the end to Israel, as a Jewish state. That is is precisely why it is advocated by some Palestinians. That is also why it has been so important to Israeli negotiators to press for a recognition that Israel is the Jewish homeland.
Getting back to Prime Minister Harper, the press, particularly the foreign press as well as some Palestinian reporters have been trying to get Harper to agree to criticize all Israel settlements. They have been baiting him with questions that are designed to get him to attack Netanyahu. They pushed him to do this in Ramallah during a press conference and he refused. Some Palestinians were incensed, arguing that he insulted them by refusing to call the settlements "illegal" in accordance with what was stated as long standing Canadian policy. But Harper refused to take the bait and stated that he did not come to the Middle East to single out Israel for criticism. Under the current negotiations that Kerry has been overseeing, there is said to be a recognition that Israel would keep certain settlement blocs under a proposed peace deal. So it would not be helpful for any leader to simply take the position that anything built outside of the 1967 borders is necessarily "illegal" under international law.
To balance things out a bit (and I try to be as balanced as I can...), I have to turn back to Harper's speech in the Knesset. Harper was preceded by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by opposition leader Yitzhak (Isaac) Herzog. I thought Herzog's speech was quite good. He called quite forcefully for Israel to seize the opportunity of the current negotiations and reach a deal with the Palestinians. Herzog sounded much more pragmatic and realistic than the previous Labour Party leader Sheli Yacomovitch and this may well be a sign that the Labour party will look to join the government if it can do so to bolster a potential peace deal (possibly at the expense of Bennett's party). Herzog stated that a majority of the members of the current sitting Knesset would support a deal with the Palestinians now and called on Netanyahu to do everything possible to reach such a deal. Whether the Palestinians will agree to an deal is still an open question.
If there is a reasonable criticism of Harper's speech, Herzog's speech probably illustrates the area in which Harper fell short. While his speech was very supportive of Israel and its many challenges, he offered no suggestions as to what might be done to push for a peace deal. His call for a Palestinian State was strident but lacked any additional substance or suggestions. He said little about the Palestinians, even while some Israeli opposition politicians would take a different approach from that taken by Israel's current government. Not that I am suggesting that any foreign leader should come to Israel to meddle and criticize but there was probably some room for a bit more nuance.
Harper's visit to Israel is bound to solidify and bolster support among the Canadian Jewish community and, quite possibly, the Canadian evangelical community as well. For the most part, that is not to say that it is simply a political ploy. Harper's support for Israel seems to be heartfelt and logical. Much of what he had to say seems unassailable from the viewpoint of those living in a Western democracy. Even though many Canadians may well disagree with Harper on his Middle East policies, I feel that he must be given credit for taking a principled, morally supportable stand on a contentious issue in a thorny part of the world.
Nevertheless, there is still some basis for cynicism. Did this trip really require an entourage of some 200 people, largely funded by the Canadian government? Was it necessary to take along 21 rabbis? (Two or three would have probably been sufficient). Is anything of substance being accomplished or negotiated? These are some points that have been raised and they are legitimate.
Despite these questions, the trip seems to be going quite well so far. It is heartwarming to see Harper receive an Israel National Ice Hockey Team jersey from Prime Minister Netanyahu, to see Harper speaking at the Knesset and visiting the Kotel and to hear a Canadian Prime Minister standing up and taking a strong position against worldwide anti-Semitism and in support of Israel. These are courageous positions for a Canadian Prime Minister to take in the face of domestic and international criticism.
Unfortunately for Israel, there are very few other world leaders who offer Israel this type of support and kinship. Israel and the Canadian Jewish community are fortunate to have the Harper government's leadership on this issue and are undoubtedly enjoying this trip.