Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to Israel and the West Bank will not be just a simple filling out of his resumé and staging a series of photo-ops geared to the 2015 election – although it will certainly be both of those things. The domestic Canadian politics of the visit have been made more urgent by the Liberals’ point that Justin Trudeau has already been to Israel and the curiously incurious Prime Minister has not, either before coming to office or in the eight years since.
Beyond the “comms plans” and optics, though, it is the substance that matters, as the visit falls in the middle of some of the most politically and strategically fraught negotiations of our times – the quest for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and the curtailing of the Iranian nuclear program. Success or failure in each of these talks will have profound consequences, including for Canadians. The national interest requires the Prime Minister to be more statesman than partisan.
The alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program will likely be preoccupying Mr. Harper’s Israeli hosts. Jerusalem has gone to great lengths to warn that a nuclear weapon-equipped Iran would be a danger to Israel and could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey seek means to deter Iran and defend themselves.
Were all that to happen, Israel’s nuclear deterrent would lose some or all of its value and its own strategic situation would become near incalculably complex. Under pressure from Israel, the U.S. has sworn not just to “contain” Iran but to use force if necessary to prevent the Shia state from producing nuclear weapons. Despite the posturing in Jerusalem, the view is widely held that on its own Israel could only interrupt Iran’s nuclear program briefly – not stop it – and that American participation, even leadership, in attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be indispensable to any mission’s operational success. The American time frame for any such military action is considerably longer and more conditional than Tel Aviv’s because of Washington’s vastly greater technical capability and the president’s sharing of the public’s skepticism of preventive wars.
The unintended consequences of a military attack on Iran would probably include the destruction of the international consensus for imposing sanctions on Iran; redoubled determination on the part of Iranian hardliners to escape the confines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty; deepening Muslim hatred of the U.S. (and Israel) for an attack on yet another Muslim country; opportunistic political profit-taking by Moscow and Beijing; disruption of oil and possibly financial markets at least temporarily and the concomitant impacts on European economies; and destruction of potentially thousands of lives.
Those are some of the consequences if the attack succeeds in crippling the Iranian nuclear program. A failed operation would be all that and worse, not least, the shredding of Israel’s political and military reputation. Further, Americans’ attitudes towards Israel could be undermined if the U.S. public, already fed up with fighting in the Middle East, came to believe that Israel had dragged them into another war.
For all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outrage, real or feigned for bad cop effect, the deal and the ongoing negotiations between Tehran and Security Council members on the Iranian nuclear program is vastly preferable to war. The negotiations might lead Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, pull Tehran out of its isolation and lead to more normal relations with a democracy-hungry Iranian people. The Iranians have not eternally been enemies of the U.S. or of Israel. Times can change.
The Iranian and Palestinian issues are linked, at least indirectly. The Israeli government’s determination to keep building settlements is eroding support for Israel internationally at precisely the time it needs international legitimacy to attract support for action against Iran. In the words of former Israeli national security adviser Uzi Arad “the Prime Minister [Netanyahu] has been dealing with Iran as if there were no Palestine and Palestine as if there were no Iran” (quoted by Ari Shavit in “Does This Mean War?” Haaretz, 2012). But, for Israel, the road to Tehran runs through Washington because the decision-makers on Iran are the decision-makers on Palestine. In addition to its intrinsic merits, an agreement on a two-state solution would give Washington greater “cover” in the Middle East, and in the mid-West too, for military action if Tehran proved intransigent. Given these highly complex circumstances, Prime Minister Harper needs to take special care not to complicate Secretary John Kerry’s efforts, and to contribute judiciously to them where he can.
The status quo in the West Bank will not endure eternally whatever some Israelis might wish and neither side will get all it wants in negotiations whatever some Palestinians might hope. Partly because there are people including cabinet ministers on both sides, not just among the Palestinians, who do not believe the other side has a right to exist, Mr. Harper ought to reiterate publically Canada’s long-standing support for a two state solution – based on the pre-1967 lines and mutually agreed land swaps. To be taken seriously by Israelis, Mr. Harper will want to demonstrate publically as well as privately that he understands Israel’s need for security and its right to defend itself when threatened. To be taken seriously by others, he will need to accord greater importance than heretofore to the Palestinians’ desire for a state of their own. He should spend some of the political capital he has amassed from unwavering support of the Israeli government to urge Israel to cease building settlements, which are illegal under international law and render a two-state solution moot. Mr. Harper should program enough time in the West Bank to see for himself how difficult life there is.
On Iran, Mr. Harper should not endorse Mr. Netanyahu’s impatience with a diplomatic solution – even prominent Israeli national security specialists are divided on the necessity of military action – and should manifest strong support for a negotiated outcome. He needs to be more statesman than partisan. Too much is at stake for free-lancing and self-serving expressions of skepticism. He should make the point with the Israelis that progress on the Palestine question would strengthen Israel’s standing internationally and attract more support when Israel rings the alarm about Iran’s nuclear intentions.
Finally, Ottawa’s Global Markets Action Plan calls for harnessing all its diplomatic assets, including presumably its chief diplomatic asset, “to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors in key foreign markets.” Given all that we have at stake in our own relations with Washington, Mr. Harper will presumably connect the dots from political to economic diplomacy and take care not to alienate the U.S. Secretary of State and President, the recommender and decider-in-chief respectively, of the Keystone pipeline project. The Middle East trip provides him an opportunity to lend a hand to the U.S. administration on issues that matter to us as well as to President Obama and to do so prior to the President’s decision on the Keystone pipeline. That would be statesmanship.
Paul Heinbecker is a former chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He is currently with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Laurier University in Waterloo.