Friday, January 17, 2014

Prime Minister Harper's Trip to Israel - January 2014

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be arriving in Israel on Sunday January 19, 2014 for his first visit along with a delegation of cabinet ministers, MPs, and others as well as some Canadian business and religious leaders.  He will also be visiting the West Bank and Jordan.  Among other stops, Prime Minister Harper will become the first Canadian Prime Minister to address the Israeli parliament - the Knesset.  This is, of course, something that President Obama refused to do, for fear of officially recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital.

Prime Minister Harper will also be receiving an Honourary degree from Tel-Aviv University.  It is unclear whether his itinerary will include a trip to the Canada Centre - Israel's Olympic-sized ice rink in Metullah, although given the PM's interest in ice hockey, this would seem to be an appropriate stop.  I'm sure that Israel's national ice hockey team would be happy to entertain the Prime Minister as they prepare for the upcoming IIHF Division II Tournament. 

Prime Minister Harper's government has been a great friend of the State of Israel.  It has been willing to take a principled approach towards issues of terrorism, Israeli security and fairness of treatment towards Israel by the international community, even when these issues have been unpopular.  Under Harper's leadership, the Canadian government has stood by Israel's right to defend itself in the face of relentless, unprovoked rocket attacks from Hezbollah in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.  The Canadian government has also refused to go along with pro forma anti-Israel resolutions put forward annually at the U.N. and other one-time U.N. resolutions that unfairly attack Israel.  For example, Canada stood alone in January 2009, opposing a U.N. Human Rights Council motion to denounce Israel, exclusively, over the military operations in Gaza in response to the rocket attacks that Israel faced from Hamas.  The U.S. is not a member of this distinguished council, which seems to define its success by the number of anti-Israel resolutions it can put forward at any given time, despite any other worldwide conflicts that might be occurring.

Some have argued that Canada's support of Israel means that Canada abandoned a long-standing position as an "honest-broker."  But what does this really mean?  Israel is the only country in the Middle East with values that are remotely similar to Canadian values.  It has a vibrant and free press.  Equality for all citizens.  Freedom of religion for all citizens.  The rule of law.  Contrast that with Israel's neighbouring countries and territories - Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza...the list goes on and on.  How could Canada approach all countries in similar fashion in these circumstances? 

Canada can and should support and assist the Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel with the intention of building a democratic, peaceful, secure country and coming to a peaceful resolution with Israel.  That is the stated Canadian objective.  I have confidence that this Canadian Prime Minister and his government would be very supportive of Palestinians with those goals and would be prepared to provide economic and other assistance to bolster a mutually acceptable peace deal with Israel.  Maybe we could even wind up with an ice hockey arena in Ramallah to go along with the one that is in Metullah.  This Canadian government would also have credibility with the Israeli government in helping to work towards a comprehensive peace deal.

But in dealing with regimes that are not supportive of these types of goals, and that advocate violence and terrorism, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, it would make little sense for Canada to simply be an "honest broker" between Israel and those entities.

Much credit goes to Minister Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development.  Minister Kenney has been a staunch opponent of terrorism, worldwide.  He has supported Holocaust education and awareness and has opposed antisemitism and other forms of racism wherever they might exist.  Even at conferences where antisemitism is in vogue, Minister Kenney has been prepared to call a spade a spade and demand that antisemitism be treated no differently from other forms of racism.  While this is anathema in so many other countries throughout the world, it is a principled approach that contrasts dramatically with the U.N's Orwellian attacks on Israel.   .

This is not all intended to mean that the Canadian government should support every one of Prime Minister Netanyahu's policies or that Canada must refrain from criticizing the Israeli government.  But any criticism of Israel, should be, as Prime Minister Harper recognizes, contextual.  Contrast this approach with the outrageous comments of then Canadian Liberal candidate Michael Ignatieff, who called Israel's actions in Lebanon (in response to a barrage of rocket attacks) a "war crime." (He later apologized).

With the credibility that Canada now has in Israel, it may well be able to assist Israel and the Palestinians in the current negotiations that have been taking place under the guidance of John Kerry.  Ministers in the current Israeli government including powerful Minister of Finance Yair Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been publicly supportive of trying to reach a comprehensive deal.  While there are certainly Ministers in the Israeli government including Minister Ayalon and Minister Bennett who are opposed to the current negotiations, there seems to be some basis for optimism.

It is unfortunate that support for Israel has been characterized as a "right-left" issue in Canadian politics and in other places in the world.  In the U.S., many socially progressive Democratic politicians have been strongly supportive of Israel for the types of reasons that Prime Minister Harper and Minster Kenney have put forward.  They have recognized that if there were democratic, free governments, like Israel across the Middle East, there is little doubt that those countries would be at peace with Israel.  While the Israeli record is far from perfect, Israel's policies in some social areas are completely unrivaled across the Middle East and throughout much of the world; its vibrant, free press; its treatment of minorities including religious minorities, gays, and others and its open court system which consistently adheres to the principles of the rule of law.

With these types of values, it makes sense that democratic countries like Canada and the U.S. would side with Israel in its current conflicts, just as it makes sense that Canada and the U.S. have sided with democratic European countries like Britain and France when they have faced threats from non-democratic, hostile forces.  Few people would say that Canada should have simply played the role of "honest broker" in some of the international conflicts in which Canada has been involved over the course of its history.

I wish the Prime Minister and his delegation the best of success in their travels and I trust that they will have an eye-opening, rewarding and welcoming experience and who knows, maybe they will even assist with some breakthrough negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to bring about an end to a seemingly intractable conflict. 




  1. I'm uncomfortable with the connection you make - just because we are more like Israel and Israelis, doesn't mean we must support Israel rather then playing the honest broker. Yes, there is something natural in siding with those we identify with, but it can make for a destabilizing foreign policy.

    More importantly, I note that you point out that we have the "credibility with the Israeli government" necessary to help them work towards peace, but how is it useful to have a country that has credibility with one side - those are a dime a dozen. What is more useful to the peace process is a country that has credibility with both sides - and that is what Canada once aspired to be.

    Of course, there is value in countries saying 'to hell with neutrality, it is time to follow our convictions of right and wrong", but there was also value in our previous 'neutral/honest broker' role.

    (And on an unrelated point, it doesn't make sense to me that the Canadian government is paying the way for the 150-200 guests of Harper on this trip.)

  2. I agree with your unrelated point that the 150-200 "guests" of the Prime Minister should pay their own way. My understanding is that only those guests who are actually flying with the PM (30 or so) are having their trips paid for by the PMO. But I'm not sure about that. Even so, I still agree that any person attending who is not part of the government or working for the government should pay their own way.

    But on your broader point, I maintain my original assertion. Canada should promote and support democratic, free countries. It's not simply because we are "more like them," it is because we have common goals of freedom, rule of law, equality of opportunity and other similar values. That is, after all, why we sided with Britain and France in WWII, isn't it?
    If there are two sides committed to similar goals, then Canada's posture should be much more neutral. So if Canada is trying to broker a deal between a government (Palestinian or otherwise) that is truly committed to a peaceful resolution, to freedom, to stability - sure, Canada should be an "honest broker."

    But if the country is Iran, or the entity that we are dealing with is Hezbollah or Hamas - should we be in the middle just for the sake of saying we are an "honest broker" even if that position is morally questionable? Like Switzerland in World War II?

    I did not say that Canada should only support Israel - in this dispute - or should only foster credibility with the Israelis. Canada should be willing - and it has been - to support and to push both sides if the goals are a peaceful resolution. Far too many countries in the world have demonstrated massive bias against Israel and a complete failure to take into account Israel's security concerns or even Israel's right to exist. It is little wonder that Israel's reaction to these countries would simply be "well - I guess we are on our own to defend ourselves."

    As an "honest broker," Canada was one of the countries that would routinely support annual anti-Israel resolutions of all types at the U.N. There is little that is "honest" about that position and still less that is conducive to being a "broker."

    Under the Conservative government, Canada defended Israel's right to respond to rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza in 2009 and to rocket attacks from Hezbollah in 2009. This defence of Israel's position is what so many people have opposed as being a departure from the "honest broker" role. But it makes no moral sense to stand by and not say anything while Hamas decides to fire rockets at Israeli civilians from the Gaza strip or while Hezbollah tries to attack civilians in Tel-Aviv. Any "honest" country would readily acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself with whatever force was required in those circumstances. And that is precisely what Canada did, even though it had very little international company.

  3. In response to your Anonymous comment, I am uncomforable with being a neutral broker ( honest is all relative). When it happens on your soil or your personal friends or if you are directly invoved then I would like to see if you would still stay neutral. If we are to be PEOPLE OF PEACE and have the cedibility you are looking for you must lead by example. Not taking a stand on right from wrong, trying to have each side like you because you sympathize with the plight they are in does not make for honest, longlasting, and true peace. More importantly, it is the consistancy with which we act and hold steadfast in our values that will bring the credibility you are seeking from both sides. Take a stand and be heard, so that everyone will know and recognize what you are willing to do or not do for peace.

  4. Responding to 2nd Anon, I agree with some of what you wrote, but I note your comment "when it happens on your soil or your personal friends or if you are directly invoved[sic]...". In spite of the good relationship and admiration shared between Isreal and Canada, it is not helpful for observer countries (friend, or otherwise) to respond to disputes and crisis as if one party is our personal friend, or as if we were personally involved. That just leads to one bloc of friends/allies against another.