On Sunday, Stephen Harper’s plane will touch down at David Ben Gurion Airport. When the Prime Minister, a true friend and steadfast supporter, steps onto the tarmac, he will begin his first visit to the region and officially kick off the celebrations of 65 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Canada. He will also find himself physically between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the two cities that embody the richness of my country as a meeting point between old and new.
To the east lies Jerusalem, home of the unbroken 3,000-year Jewish presence in the Holy Land. This ancient city is sacred to the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Here, Mr. Harper will walk the cobblestone streets passing Christians, Jews and Muslims as they freely make their way to their places of worship. He will also visit Yad Vashem. This world-renowned Holocaust museum stands as a tribute to the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and to the Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who risked their own lives to save others.
As the nation’s capital, Jerusalem is the seat of government to the only democracy in the Middle East. When Mr. Harper becomes the first Canadian Prime Minister to address our parliament, the Knesset, he will look out and see 120 members who represent all of Israel’s mosaic, including the Arabs who make up 20 per cent of the Israel’s eight million people. Now more than ever, at a time when the region is mired in violence and instability, Israel shines as a beacon of freedom.
In a difficult neighbourhood, we have faced many threats over the course of our 66-year history. When Mr. Harper stops at the Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre, which has been named in his honour, he will be less than 20 kilometres from Syria and its civil war – commuting distance between Mississauga and Toronto. His visit will be an opportunity to hear about our security concerns: Halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which has gone unabated despite the regime’s charm offensive; maintaining our security assets, including our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan; and finding a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
Israel is an island of stability in a sea of volatility. Its modern history is about how a small country (two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island, and half desert) built itself up from scratch. From 1948 to 1952, our population nearly tripled from 600,000 to 1.5 million, with an influx of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and postwar Europe. Lacking in natural resources, the nascent state spent much of its early years as a developing nation.
Of necessity, Israelis transformed ourselves by harnessing the power of science and innovation. Today, we are an advanced OECD nation with more than half of our exports from the high-tech sector. We have become a global leader in the fields that are beginning to define the 21st century: brain research, nanotechnology, agriculture, water technology, solar energy and life sciences. Through our international aid agency, MASHAV, we share our experience with developing countries.
The engine behind our success and the embodiment of the new Israel is located just west of Ben Gurion Airport. Ranked second only to Silicon Valley as a global hub for startups, Tel Aviv is on the cutting edge of technological innovation. It is home to many of the 250 high-tech multinationals (including Intel, Apple and Google) that have set up research centres in Israel. When Mr. Harper receives an honourary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, he will be at the same place where researchers invented the now ubiquitous DiskOnKey flash drive and handheld bar-code scanners. In Israel’s economic heartland, he and counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu will discuss ways to deepen bilateral trade, business connections and collaboration in innovation.
It is my hope that when Mr. Harper finds himself back on the tarmac at Ben Gurion, he will board his plane with a multifaceted perspective. His vocal support of Israel will then be reinforced by firsthand experience of a land that may be short on geography and resources, but steeped in history and innovation.
Rafi Barak is Israel’s ambassador to Canada. From 2010 to 2013, he served as director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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