Ever since 1947, when Canada voted at the United Nations in favour of the partition of Palestine to create the state of Israel, every Canadian government has supported that state.
Liberals and Progressive Conservatives anchored Canada’s Middle East policy in Israel’s legitimacy, admired its democratic system, cheered on the country in three wars, developed economic ties (including a free-trade agreement) and relished the many ties of kith and kin linking the two countries. These governments and all Canadians knew the immense contributions Jews had made to Canada in every walk of life, and of the Jewish community’s attachment to Israel.
These governments, while never wavering in their support for Israel, nonetheless tried to understand the complexities of the world’s most tangled region. They offered help, where possible and where wanted, to all sides (except avowedly terrorist groups) in the region’s enduring political conflicts, bearing in mind that Canada’s influence there has always been slight.
None, however, has gone as far in embracing Israel as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government – to the point of distancing Canada from traditional allies in the United States and Europe, abandoning even the pretense of balance and nuance, and contributing to Canada’s defeat in seeking a seat on the UN Security Council (a seat won the next time by Australia, whose governments had also been strong supporters of Israel but not as abrasively as the Harper government).
Canada’s government is now the most undiluted, fervent supporter of Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the entire world. The Harper government would wear that description as a badge of honour, and Mr. Harper accordingly will be given a grand welcome during his week-long visit.
Why has this government gone beyond all previous Canadian ones in supporting Israel?
It is something visceral and personal for Mr. Harper. His deep commitment does not spring from personal experience or considerable reading about the Middle East and its history – indeed, while he was leader of the opposition, foreign diplomats in Ottawa who managed to secure a meeting (often difficult) with him were struck by how little interested he was in any international issues.
Mr. Harper sees the world, like Canadian domestic affairs, in rather Manichean terms, wherein the forces of good and evil are arrayed against each other, with threatening enemies everywhere, prepared to pounce on any weakness. The forces of good are democracies, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety and a few others, including Israel. The forces of darkness and instability are other kinds of political systems.
Mr. Harper expressed that Manichean world view when speaking to the Negev dinner in Toronto last month. Israel, he said, is “a light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness.” That dichotomy – light versus an entire “region of darkness” – is of course how many Israelis see their country, a democracy surrounded by enmity and instability.
Such a world view, applied to the Middle East, leaves no room for nuance, balance or understanding of complexity, just a dualistic clash between good and evil, progress and darkness, stability and danger. Of course, this is not how other Western countries behave in the Middle East, including those who strongly support Israel. But it is now Canada’s way.
And then there is the domestic political angle, which permeates and shapes almost everything Mr. Harper’s government does. Even before this visit, the government was sending e-mails to supporters heralding the trip and alerting them to further messages.
With steely purpose, the government has tied its Middle East policy to a domestic political appeal to Jewish voters. The majority used to support the Liberals but many are now Conservatives because of the importance attached to Canada’s policy on this one issue: Israel.
This positioning has been hugely appreciated by Jewish voters, but also by evangelical Christian faiths, many of which hold a favourable theological view of Israel. This has proven valuable to the Conservatives in fundraising at election time, as their coalition contains disproportionate numbers of evangelical voters.
Eds note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Canada's defeat in 2010 in seeking a seat on the UN Security Council was its first. In fact, Canada was defeated on the third ballot for Security Council membership in 1946.