Those who believe the Harper government’s pro-Israel foreign policy is somehow undermining Canada’s influence in the region, or traducing an imaginary history of this country as a neutral honest broker, need to come back to reality. Canada’s ability to weigh on the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is approximately nil. And there’s an upside to that: Canada can afford to have a principled foreign policy. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it in his speech to the Israeli Knesset on Monday, it “is a very Canadian trait, to do something for no reason other than it is right, even when no immediate reward for, or threat to, ourselves is evident.” We’re not sure that’s a uniquely Canadian virtue, but it is a particularly Canadian opportunity. The question is whether Mr. Harper is living up to that principle.
The Prime Minister’s position, as laid out in his Knesset speech, is not as one-sided as either his supporters or his critics make it out to be. He said that strong support for Israel is right, because as a state founded on democracy and the rule of law, it shares Canada’s values. He pushed back at those who would single out Israel for criticism, including criticism for the repeated failures of the peace process, while soft-pedalling the misdeeds of the neighbourhood’s many less savoury regimes. But he also, however briefly, articulated the long-standing position shared by all the Western allies: A two state solution, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. Canada, he said, “has long supported a just and secure future for the Palestinian people,” which he described, as any other Western leader would as, “a viable, democratic Palestinian state.” It needed to be said.
During his trip, the PM was repeatedly asked say something critical about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A few days ago, the Department of Foreign Affairs quietly released a policy paper restating Canada’s position, which differs not at all from that of our allies: The West Bank is not part of Israel, settlements there are not legal, and the status of Jerusalem can only be decided as part of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Harper told reporters that he didn’t want to get into any of this while in Israel (or in front of an audience that he is courting at home), but he insisted that the government’s positions on settlements “are well known, they are public, they are known to both parties.”
Israel shouldn’t be singled out for criticism, as it often is in forums like the UN. But friends, even the best of friends, have to be willing to tell one another the truth. Last week, European foreign ministers sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for approving the construction of new housing units on the West Bank. The U.S Secretary of State has said they call into question whether the current Israeli government is serious about peace talks. Mr. Harper didn’t have to brow-beat Mr. Netanyahu. He didn’t even have to mention it in the Knesset. But his complete silence on the subject, at the same time as our allies are rightly criticizing Mr. Netanyahu, is wrong. The principled foreign policy needs to revist its first principles.