Showing posts with label Prime Minister Harper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prime Minister Harper. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Prime Minister Harper in Israel - More Comments

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.  


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.