Skip to main content
campbell clark

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill on March 2, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

When Canadian political parties marked this weekend's passing of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, even the condolences displayed distinctions. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's statement, praising the "leadership and vision" of an "architect of modern-day Israel," showed a greater willingness than the Liberals or NDP to laud a man seen by Palestinians as a villainous former military commander. The NDP left its brief statement, calling Mr. Sharon an "influential leader," to its foreign-affairs critic, Paul Dewar.

The statement is like Mr. Harper's approach to Israel: all-in, with few shades of grey.

The Prime Minister is to travel to Israel this weekend with a delegation of more than 150, including a big chunk of his cabinet – not just Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, or the trade minister or international co-operation minister, but also Industry Minister James Moore, Energy Minister Joe Oliver and Employment Minister Jason Kenney. There is talk that there might be a cabinet-to-cabinet meeting with key members of Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

That's the kind of high-profile display the Canadian government doesn't mount just anywhere.

The visit will add to the quiet things the government has been doing, such as stepping up defence co-operation, as Israeli officials come regularly to Ottawa. On this trip, Mr. Harper is expected to formally announce negotiations to upgrade the free-trade agreement with Israel. (Talks are already under way.) He'll travel near the Lebanese border to hear about Israel's security challenges, go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and address the Knesset.

And he'll be seen. Jean Chrétien was just another foreign leader when he visited 14 years ago, but Israelis, who feel beset by international critics, have noticed Mr. Harper, who takes their side. Officials know Mr. Harper has backed them diplomatically, such as when he blocked a G8 summit statement on Mideast borders that Mr. Netanyahu didn't like.

Mr. Harper's shift has raised ire in the Arab world, at least when Canadian policy is noticed. Vocal opposition to the Palestinian Authority's bid for observer-state status at the United Nations also rankled. Mr. Harper's stops outside Israel on this trip seem designed to mute criticisms.

A brief visit to Ramallah comes after Palestinan Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signalled a desire to move past tensions, and it's a good bet that Mr. Harper will announce a new aid package stalled during the UN campaign. He'll spend two days in relatively friendly Jordan, where Ottawa provides large sums to help the moderate regime of King Abdullah cope with an influx of Syrian refugees. His official reception will be warmer than feelings in the Arab world.

But don't expect any shading of his pro-Israel attitude. His first visit – after a 2008 plan was sidetracked by events in Israel – will seal a legacy of moving closer, with no holding back.

It's not that the official Canadian policy on Middle East settlement has been radically altered, but the approach has. Ottawa is officially against expanding Israeli settlements, but Mr. Baird expresses that by saying unilateral action on either side is "unhelpful" and Ottawa won't "pile on" Israel. Previous Canadian governments declared themselves friends of Israel, but tried to appear even-handed with Palestinians in UN votes, for example. Mr. Harper dumped that.

That's no surprise now. But it wasn't expected when he came to office as a foreign-policy unknown. Conservatives were associated with waspy disinterest in the Mideast, but the Reform Party had pro-Israel evangelical Christians and those who saw it starkly as democracy versus non-democracy. And Mr. Harper's Conservatives brought innovation to diaspora politics: behind the Liberals with almost every group, they were willing to pick sides and win some, even if it turned off others.

"You've seen a transformation. Ten years ago, the Jewish community was largely identified with the Liberal Party," said Rabbi Philip Scheim, of Toronto's Beth David synagogue, who will be part of the delegation.

Rabbi Scheim argued that probably hurts more than helps. There are one million Muslims in Canada, and 350,000 Jews, and neither community votes monolithically. But many Muslim Canadians, from a variety of countries, are not especially attached to Palestinian issues, and they are spread across many ridings. The change in Jewish-community voting helps Conservatives in about 10 ridings where it is a significant part of the population, and helped elect Toronto MPs like Peter Kent, Joe Oliver, and Mark Adler.

It's a change that will have a lasting effect on the political map in Canada. Mr. Harper's alignment to Israel is a new paradigm, and other parties, and successor governments, will measure up matching it, or pushing away.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.