With his country contemplating an attack on Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits his closest ally in the world on Friday: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Mr. Harper has changed Canada’s traditional positions on questions relating to Israel, to the intense satisfaction of Israel and, in particular, the very right-wing coalition government Mr. Netanyahu leads.
All previous Canadian governments had fully supported Israel’s legitimacy, security and right to self-defence. Canada signed a free-trade agreement with Israel (and the Palestinian Authority). Thousands of people moved back and forth between the two countries. Canadian Jewish organizations received all-party support.
But all previous Canadian governments also had expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and supported their right to a state. Canada chaired a United Nations group on Palestinian refugees and, depending on the type of resolution, acknowledged the problem of Israeli settlements, including their illegality as defined by UN resolutions, on land occupied after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.
Whether Liberal or Conservative, Canadian governments strongly supported both Israel and peaceful Palestinian aspirations. Canada had marginal influence in the region but, nonetheless, urged both sides to talk and, on occasion, was willing to criticize actions on both sides deleterious to peace.
No longer. Mr. Harper has taken a radically different approach. His government has become Israel’s pulling guard in the world. Inside meetings of la Francophonie and the G8, Mr. Harper has personally inserted himself – or instructed Canadian diplomats to insert themselves – to block resolutions even mildly critical of Israel, including references to the settlements. Mr. Harper has thus isolated Canada from its traditional allies such as the United States, Britain and France.
After last fall’s UN General Assembly meeting, Israel announced new settlements. Barack Obama’s administration criticized the move. So did the European Union. The German Chancellor personally phoned Mr. Netanyahu and asked him to desist. Canada said nothing.
At that UN meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird wrote his own speech, an over-the-top effort laced with fiery rhetoric supporting Israel and damning its foes. Mr. Baird, on becoming the minister, had informed his department that he didn’t want to hear from experts there because he and the government had already fixed their positions on Israel and the Middle East.
Mr. Baird recently spent five days in Israel, with an Orthodox rabbi from Canada alongside. Retired Canadian diplomats, asked if they could ever remember a Canadian foreign minister spending five days in any country (apart from international negotiations), scratched their heads and said no. By contrast, Mr. Harper spent four days in China, a rather more important country than Israel.
But not more important, apparently, to the Harper government, whose insensitivity to the Palestinians is complete and whose support for anything Israel does or wants is unconditional.
Should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear installations – an attack Mr. Netanyahu will be discussing next week in Washington – he can assume complete support from Mr. Harper. The Canadian Prime Minister has already portrayed Iran in the worst possible light, using language that parallels the most hard-line rhetoric within Israel. He even suggested Iran might use nuclear weapons should they be constructed, as if the Iranians were completely suicidal.
The radical shift in Canada’s position comes from at least four factors: the Harper government’s sometimes “white hats/black hats” view of certain foreign-policy questions; an evangelical Christian streak in the Conservative Party that’s religiously favourable to Israel; the idea that Israel is a democracy and Arab countries are not; and a political calculation that most Canadian Jewish voters could be pried from the Liberals.
An attack on Iran, whose regime is thoroughly awful, would unite the Iranians, lead to reprisals and perhaps to a much wider conflict, delay but not halt Iran’s nuclear program, bring about the end of diplomacy and inflame the Muslim world.
So far, the Obama administration has been trying to counsel restraint. Not so for a Canadian government that has radically changed the country’s long-standing policies.