On a first foray into the Middle East, most leaders would tread with caution. But Stephen Harper came to show where he stood. In the process, through his words and in his deeds, he provided a new rationale for his strong views about the region.
This wasn’t just Mr. Harper’s first visit to Israel. It was his first visit to the Middle East, with a stop in the West Bank, a visit to King Abdullah in Jordan, and a trip to a Syrian refugee camp. And in the Middle East, Mr. Harper picked his favourites – the partners he sees as sharing values and the forces of moderation that Canada can bolster.
This is a region that Mr. Harper views in contrasting darkness and light, with a duty to encourage the glimmers. His recipe is about stabilizing aid, encouraging economic development that he sees as promoting modernization and moderation, and offering unwavering symbolic support. The Prime Minister didn’t describe hopeful futures. Instead, he prescribed how to confront a difficult world, with a Middle East he sees as mostly dark.
“The threats in this region are real, deeply rooted, and deadly,” he told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “And the forces of progress often anemically weak.”
For Mr. Harper, that makes Israel an exception. It’s a country with shared values, cultural links, and democracy – one that must be supported, for moral and strategic reasons, as a front-line state that faces threats “for many of the same reason we face them.” While Mr. Harper made a call for peace, he did not press for it. That, he indicated, waits on Palestinian will.
It was, one editorialist put it, a “yes-yes” message when Israelis are used to “yes-but.”
In Israel, the Prime Minister came for a celebration after eight years of staunch support. And he got one. Israelis, along with some of the 200 invitees he brought with him, cheered him as he spoke to the Knesset and visited the Western Wall. At a celebratory ceremony at Tel Aviv University where he received an honorary doctorate, speaker after speaker heaped praise on Mr. Harper.
At the centre of the celebration, though, was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pitched a tent outside his office for a welcome ceremony, and dined elbow-to-elbow with Mr. Harper three nights in a row.
Their comments bounced off each other’s comfortably.
There were, in Mr. Harper’s agenda, few places for dissenting voices.
He was heckled by Arab-Israeli legislators in the Knesset, including Ahmad Tibi, who argued Mr. Harper was blind to the reality of discrimination against Arab-Israelis and separate justice for Palestinians. Israel is “a democracy for Jews, not for all of its citizens,” Mr. Tibi told The Globe in an interview.
Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper lamented that Mr. Harper failed speak against settlements and push for peace now, adding that he was not Israel’s friend, but Mr. Netanyahu’s.
In the West Bank, meeting Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Harper heard no public criticisms. Mr. Harper came carrying a $66-million aid package, an effort to turn the page on disputes over the 2012 Palestinian bid for observer-state status at the United Nations. Mr. Abbas diplomatically called for dialogue over differences.
But the nature of Mr. Harper’s aid sent a signal, too. The Palestinians had asked for social aid, such as education, but Mr. Harper delivered aid focused on private-sector economic development. It was in line with how Mr. Harper promotes the forces of progress: economic development, in his view, leads to good governance, and moderation will follow.
When he looked to the broader Middle East, Mr. Harper voted with his feet, for the same reasons.
He could have visited Egypt, the region’s most populous nation, split by bitter tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army-backed regime. He didn’t. Instead, he said Canada welcomed the army’s return after ousting elected president Mohammed Morsi, who, he said, was using an election to create an authoritarian Islamic state.
He could have gone to Saudi Arabia, a wealthy power, to engage what is surely one of the countries he was referring to in Tel Aviv when he said extremist opponents of Syria’s Assad regime were being funded by Sunni countries. But he didn’t do that either.
Instead, he chose Jordan, a small, poor country with a moderate regime led by a Western-educated king. Jordan isn’t a true democracy, but it is a relatively open society, and is willing to promote the peace process and co-operate with Israel. And it is led by a king pledging democratization and economic development – what Mr. Harper responds to best.
But King Abdullah also faces a delicate internal political balance, stretched by the economic and social stresses from an influx of 600,000 Syrian refugees. To that end, Mr. Harper brought aid not just for refugees but for Jordan’s education system.
Business ties, too, are part of Mr. Harper’s effort to strengthen the “forces of progress” – an extension of the government’s push to make “economic diplomacy” the centrepiece of Canada’s foreign policy.
Mr. Harper brought his Industry Minister and Natural Resources Minister to meetings with King Abdullah in Jordan – a country looking to develop shale gas to fill a power shortage. Among the issues discussed behind closed doors: a plan to build a gas pipeline from Israel to Jordan promoted by a Jordanian firm partly owned by Saskatchewan’s Potash Corp. – a plan that would also tighten Jordan’s strategic ties to Israel.
On Friday, Mr. Harper travelled to the Zaatari refugee camp in the country’s north to announce $150-million in new aid for Syrian refugees. He described the camp as the “tip of the iceberg” in a crisis that has displaced millions.
Targeted aid has become a major part of Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In geo-political terms, it’s a deliberate effort to help prevent the refugee crisis from destabilizing the region, especially in moderate Jordan, which now houses 600,000 displaced Syrians.
Outside the compound, some of those refugees said the money is appreciated, but what they really want is Western efforts to help remove Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, so they can go home. “As soon as possible,” said one.
But it’s a course that Mr. Harper rejected, in a conflict that he said pits “extreme and brutal elements on both sides.” Canada can’t change the course of the war; it can only encourage moderate elements and conciliation, and offer help for its victims.
“The brutal reality of the world is that we do not control the actions of others,” he said. “And sometimes the actions of others impose realities on others that we have to deal with.”