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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrive for their meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem January 21, 2014. (ODED BALILTY/REUTERS)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrive for their meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem January 21, 2014. (ODED BALILTY/REUTERS)

Harper says he won’t publicly single out Israel on settlements Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canadians at home support his refusal to publicly criticize Israel – because to do so would be to attack an isolated minority state.

Mr. Harper said Tuesday he has clearly raised Canada’s opposition to Israeli settlements in private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but again refused to speak publicly about the issue.

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“The one lesson I think we have learned is that when somebody is a minority, particularly a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them, not to single them out for criticism,” Mr. Harper said at a joint news conference with the Israeli leader.

“That is why I think many Canadians understand the approach I am taking, which doesn’t in any way prevent me from expressing, to the government of Israel or to the government of the Palestinian Authority, the various issues on which we disagree.”

It’s not an explanation that will convince everyone – and certainly not Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who argues that Palestinians face a larger, more powerful Israel, which has not stopped building in settlements on territory seized in 1967.

But it echoes an argument Mr. Harper has made here, as he has been embraced by his Israeli hosts: that his Mideast policy is made in Canada, and backed by Canadians. “Our position is not an Israeli position or a Palestinian position. It is a Canadian position of principle supported by the overwhelming majority of Canadians,” he said when he met Mr. Abbas on Monday.

His approach has clearly struck a chord with many Israelis, especially those with a connection to Canada.

On Tuesday, as Mr. Harper visited the Western Wall, a holy site in Judaism, he was met by crush of crowds. There was a large contingent of Canadians, including many from the Jewish community, who were invited to join his trip with accommodation paid by Ottawa – but also many others who came to greet him.

“Everybody says he’s a prime minister who supports Israel. They don’t say that about anybody else,” said Avi Manaster, a 21-year-old from Montreal who now lives in Jerusalem. “People here say that.”

Some believe Mr. Harper’s positions are more hardline than they actually are. Though Mr. Harper says he supports the peace process, Spencer Issacson, a 21-year-old Yeshiva student from Brooklyn, who doesn’t like U.S. pressure for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, said he’d heard about Mr. Harper’s speech to the Knesset, and came down to see a prime minister who just backs Israel.

“Making peace with them, that means that we’re going to be sitting like lame ducks, so we’re going to all get killed,” he said.

There’s little doubt, too, that Mr. Harper’s visit is a political bonanza for his Conservatives within the Jewish community at home. One Toronto Conservative MP, Mark Adler, pleaded with Mr. Harper’s aides to let him get in photos with the Prime Minister at the Western Wall, calling it “the million-dollar shot.” Another MP, Peter Kent, tweeted a photo of Mr. Harper belting out Sweet Caroline at Tuesday’s official dinner.

Mr. Harper spent much of the day with more solemnity, however, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, stopping at the harrowing Hall of Names, where the names of Holocaust victims are recorded, and writing “Never again” in the guest book.

It’s hard to know immediately just how many Israelis have heard of Mr. Harper’s visit to Israel, or agree with what he has said during his trip. It has garnered relatively substantial coverage in the Israeli media – mostly positive, but not all. Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, called him a friend of Mr. Netanyahu, rather than Israel.

“[Mr. Harper] completely ignored such issues at the occupation or settlements, expressed only weak support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and even granted Israel the right of a veto on this matter,” Mr. Ravid wrote. “He gave them the false feeling that everything is okay, that they are right, that if we only stand firm a bit longer, a lot more Harpers will sprout at the heads of the Western powers.”

There’s little doubt that Mr. Harper is indeed a friend of Mr. Netanyahu, who has hosted him for dinners and accompanied him to Yad Vashem. They held an official meeting Tuesday, then a larger cabinet meeting with six Canadian ministers and four Israeli counterparts. In public, they interact with ease.

It was Mr. Netanyahu, at a joint news conference Tuesday, who confirmed that Mr. Harper raises differences on settlements. “I can guarantee you that,” he said. But he insisted, in a 10-minute review of Mideast history, that it’s not the key dispute, anyway – arguing that settlements on occupied land are not the core issue in a conflict that raged for 47 years before Israel seized the territories in 1967.

“The core of the conflict is not settlements, the core of the conflict is not the territories, the core of he conflict is not the absence of a Palestinian state. The core of the conflict is the persistent refusal to reconcile to an independent nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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