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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Mr. Harper's Parliament Hill office on May 31, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Mr. Harper's Parliament Hill office on May 31, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Harper, Netanyahu did not discuss G8 statement, officials say Add to ...

Stephen Harper's office and a spokesman for the Israeli government are denying reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Canada's Prime Minister to block a G8 declaration that would use the country's prewar 1967 borders as a starting point for Mideast peace talks.

At last week's G8 summit in France, Mr. Harper blocked the inclusion in a G8 statement that would specifically call for talks based on a return to Israel's 1967 borders, plus land swaps negotiated with Palestinians. It was an idea pressed by U.S. President Barack Obama in a major May 19 speech on the Middle East - but rejected by Mr. Netanyahu.

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The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing unnamed government sources, reported Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu had called Mr. Harper last Tuesday and urged him to oppose any G8 resolution that referred to the 1967 borders.

Mr. Harper's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, said in an e-mail that Mr. Harper did speak to the Israeli Prime Minister last week, but not about the G8 summit. But Mr. Soudas did not respond to questions about whether Mr. Harper and Mr. Netanyahu had discussed the issue of Israel's 1967 borders as a starting point for peace talks.

"Prime Minister Harper has spoken to various leaders in the last few days, including the Israeli Prime Minister and well as the head of the Arab League," he said in the e-mail. "Actually, there was no G8 discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu."

An Israeli government official echoed that position Sunday saying that Mr. Netanyahu did not ask Mr. Harper to try to prevent certain language on Israel's borders from appearing in the G8 communiqué.

"I was in the room when the two men spoke," said the Israeli government official speaking on condition of remaining anonymous. "They discussed the peace process, President Obama's speech … and many of the issues that concern Israel.

"But, to the best of my recollection, they did not refer to the G8 meeting."

"Of course I don't know if the Canadian Prime Minister used that term, I only heard my man's end of the conversation," the official said. "But there certainly was no specific request [that Mr. Harper intervene]"

In cabinet Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu made a point of stating the importance of Israel's friends.

"We have friends around the world, more than many think," said the Israeli Prime Minister, "and I am pleased to see that on various continents, in various meetings, they rebuffed matters that were not desirable to us."

"It would not be a mistake to conclude he was referring to Canada," the Israeli official said.

"There is no doubt we view Canada as a great friend of Israel."

Ironically, Sunday's Israeli cabinet meet took place in David's Citadel, inside Jerusalem's Old City that was among the areas captured from Jordanian forces in 1967.

Mr. Harper, travelling in Greece, did not take questions from reporters on Sunday. Mr. Soudas, his chief spokesman, has as yet only responded with the e-mailed statement, and another press aide, Andrew Macdougall said he could not answer questions about the issue.

On Friday, at the G8 summit - which brings together the leaders of Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia - Mr. Harper said he opposed the inclusion of a reference to the 1967 borders only because it did not include references to concessions that would be made by the Palestinian side to make it "balanced."

Canada's long-standing official policy on the Middle East is that it must be resolved with the creation of two states, with their borders determined in talks based on a return to 1967 border plus negotiated adjustments.

But Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Haaretz that Canada, like Israel, opposes the call for 1967 border to be the starting point for talks.

"Canada is a true friend of Israel and [has]a realistic and proper view of things. It understands that the 1967 borders do not conform to Israel's security needs and with the current demographic reality," he said.

Israel has opposed the call for using 1967 borders as a starting point. It evokes the idea that it would cede land that it considers critical to its security, like the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, which Mr. Netanyahu's government views not only as part of the country's capital but as strategic high ground. It would also require ceding lands that are now populated by Jewish settlements.

Mr. Lieberman's comments suggest he views Canada's policy as having changed to support Israel's current position - and that Mr. Harper's move to block the G8 statement on 1967 borders was more than just a quest for "balanced" references to concessions by both sides.

Mr. Obama's May 19 speech argued that pro-democracy movements across the Arab world have created a "moment of opportunity" during which peace talks should be re-launched; it called for both sides to make concessions. For Palestinians, these would include that Hamas would have to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and that a newly defined Palestinian state would have to be non-militarized. For Israel, concessions would include that it accept that talks would be based on its pre-war 1967 borders, plus negotiated changes.

Mr. Harper and his officials have in recent weeks not explicitly referred to 1967 borders when asked about the speech, instead saying that the points to be negotiated have to be agreed by both sides - though Mr. Harper himself said Friday he is "very comfortable" with Mr. Obama's speech.

Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign-affairs critic, said Sunday that at a minimum there should be absolute clarity from Mr. Harper about Canada's position on Israel. "But it also requires some understanding of what the conversation was because this is a very troubling precedent if we are having our Prime Minister take advice and direction from another leader when there is obviously a conflict of interest."

Mr. Dewar said he is worried that the Conservatives' position is undermining Canada's position among the allies. "We believe instead of creating these kinds of cleavages we should actually be building bridges between both sides and supporting initiatives that are positive ... we believe Mr. Obama's initiative was positive."

On Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called John Baird, the newly appointed Canadian Foreign Minister, to thank Canada for its support for Israel at the G8 meeting.

This is not the first time the Harper government has been toasted in the Israeli capital for its extraordinary acts of friendship.

Soon after the militant Islamic faction Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, Mr. Harper was among the first to join with Israel in condemning the election results and announcing that Canada would have nothing more to do with the Palestinian Authority as long as Hamas was a part of it.

During Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and again during Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza two years later, Mr. Harper argued that Israel, led by then-prime-minister Ehud Olmert, was engaged in a defensive campaign to halt attacks on its people.

Mr. Harper's government also was the first, even ahead of Israel, to boycott the 2009 Durban II conference against racism, arguing it was a forum for criticizing Israel, and it joined with the Netanyahu government in condemning the 2009 Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict as being overly critical of Israel.

"The Canadian government has consistently been our good friend," said the Israeli official, "and we appreciate this."

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