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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Israel is just a campaign stop for this Prime Minister Add to ...

“It’s the re-election! This is the million-dollar shot!” – Conservative MP Mark Adler

Just as for military theorist Carl von Clausewitz war was the continuation of Politik by other means, so for Prime Minister Stephen Harper foreign policy is the continuation of domestic politics by other means, witness to which was this week’s trip to Israel.

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It is perfectly justifiable for foreign policy reasons to visit Israel; it is hardly necessary for those same reasons to organize such an extravaganza.

Only domestic politics could justify what we just observed: Six Conservative cabinet ministers and nine MPs (such as Mr. Adler); 21 rabbis of various stripes; evangelical Christian leaders; Conservative fundraisers; representatives of Jewish-Canadian lobby groups; Jewish community leaders; business people; and assorted others, a few of whom actually had deals to discuss, but the rest of whom were essentially a cheering section. There were a staggering 208 people in all, one of the biggest delegations any Canadian prime minister has taken overseas.

Canadian prime ministers such as Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin had travelled with retinues, but none as large as this. Nor did they have taxpayers pick up the tab for non-government officials, whereas in this extravaganza it was reported that 29 people had their expenses paid.

Prime minister Jean Chrétien led what were dubbed Team Canada missions, but his retinues were comprised of provincial premiers, some university leaders and business people. In size and purpose, they were nothing like this Harper trip. Nor had Mr. Harper in previous foreign travels ever been accompanied by so many people.

Mark Adler’s cry – “It’s the re-election! This is the million-dollar shot!” – came when he was prevented from getting near Mr. Harper at the Wailing Wall, a holy site for Jews around the world. Mr. Adler, the Conservative MP for York Centre, has every personal reason for being attached to Israel and to his faith, for his parents were Holocaust survivors.

His desperate, plaintive cry epitomized the domestic political ambitions of the trip. He wanted a photo of himself there, with the Prime Minister, for election purposes, part of the week-long exposure on his website that provided daily updates of his doings in Israel.

We entered, upon their arrival in office, what the Conservatives call the “permanent election campaign,” part of which involves using as many government deeds and statements as possible to advance the political interests of the party. Foreign policy, where necessary, is hitched to this political approach, which in turn involves identifying particular slices of the electorate and pitching specific policies and appeals to them.

As it is widely known, the Conservatives targeted specific ethnic/religious groups for political attention, particularly Asian-Canadians (Chinese, Sikhs, Filipinos, Koreans), East Europeans, Tamils and Jews. Before, during and following this Israeli trip, the Conservative fundraising and political machines were and will be in high gear.

In Israel, the trip received mostly inside-page reporting and some commentary; whereas in Canada it was front-page, top-of-the newscast because it was Mr. Harper’s first trip, because of his government’s shift away from a nuanced view of the Middle East to a black-and-white one, and because of the sheer size of the delegation.

To put matters another way, the Israeli government obviously appreciates such undiluted support from the Harper government, but Canada on a scale of importance in Israel ranks far down the list. And the Harper government’s decision to tilt so ardently toward Israel’s position means Canada’s support, although appreciated, is noted and taken for granted.

Nor is it easy to figure out the weird variance between the refusal of Mr. Harper and his ministers when speaking orally to criticize Israel whereas the government’s own website – a form of written speech – states that Canada accepts the world’s view about the illegality of occupied territories and of settlements continuously expanding in these territories.

Haaretz, a newspaper often critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, put the trip in cruel perspective: “The truth is that with all due respect to the prime minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”

Editor's note: an earlier version of this column that appeared online and in Saturday's newspaper incorrectly said his delegation of 208 people was more than any Canadian prime minister has taken overseas. In fact, in 2001, prime minister Jean Chretien arrived in China with more than 600 business leaders, educators and premiers.

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