Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Knesset on Monday, January 20, 2014. While in the Middle East Harper is visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan.Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made backing Israel a governing credo, used a historic speech to the Knesset to lay out the case for his staunch support – insisting it is not only a "moral imperative" but also strategically important to democracies around the world.

Mr. Harper often does not give detailed reasons for holding particular positions on issues, so the address in Israel's parliament offered the most comprehensive rationale yet for why he backs Israel "through fire and water."

At the centre of his argument was Israel's democracy, and the persistent security threats it faces building a land for the Jewish people after long persecution. But he also attacked the "moral relativism" of those who call for balance in Mideast policy as weak and wrong – and stated that a new strain of anti-Semitism in the Western world is behind sharp criticisms of Israel.

"In much of the Western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society," Mr. Harper said.

"People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East."

The point, he insisted, is that Israel is the Middle East's only democracy, and that it is surrounded by others that do not have such a political system or the rule of law and find it "easier to foster resentment and hatred of Israel's democracy than it is to provide the same rights and freedoms to their own people."

The speech offered a glimpse into Mr. Harper's reasoning and addressed some of the perplexing disconnects in Canadian statements on the Middle East that were on display earlier in the day.

On Monday morning, Mr. Harper had marked another first by visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bringing $66-million in new aid as a step toward easing tense relations. But he also flatly refused to say whether Israeli settlements on occupied land are illegal, even though he also said Canada's official policy – opposing them – has not changed.

"Any attempt to have me, while present in the Middle East, single out the state of Israel for criticism, I will not do," he said at a joint press conference with Mr. Abbas.

His speech to the Knesset, in effect, suggested his reasoning: he argued that a pattern of "selectively" condemning Israel "while systematically ignoring – or excusing – the violence and oppression all around it" de-legitimizes it as a democratic state.

He said Israel faces an "impossible calculus" between defending itself and facing condemnation or risking its destruction. And for Western democracies, he said, supporting Israel is of strategic importance because all democracies face the same threat from those "who loathe the liberty of others, and who hold the differences of peoples and cultures and religion in contempt."

It was a speech delivered with a comfortable cadence rather than fiery passion. And it garnered standing ovations and applause from most of the Knesset, as well as from a gallery packed with more than 100 of the Canadians Mr. Harper invited on his trip, including many representatives of the Jewish community.

"I don't think there was ever quite a platform like this that allowed him to set it all out," said Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. "I think for Canadian Jews in general, this has been a wonderful validation of their sense of identity as Canadians."

It also provoked heckling from two Arab members of the Knesset, Ahmad Tibi and Taleb Abu Arar, who walked out as Mr. Harper was blasting those who call Israel's treatment of Palestinians "apartheid."

"He said calling the policies of Israelis apartheid is anti-Semitism," Mr. Tibi told The Globe and Mail in a telephone interview. "We are facing discrimination daily and the Palestinians are suffering from the occupation. He described Israel as a paradise."

Mr. Tibi said he shouted at Mr. Harper when he labelled boycotts of Israeli goods because of settlements anti-Semitic. "I said, why don't you talk about settlements?"

Mr. Harper did tell the Knesset that peace with Palestinians must come – although he suggested it is waiting for Palestinian will – and insisted Canada applies the same principles to Palestinians as it does in offering support for Israel's democracy.

"It applies no less to the Palestinian people, than it does to the people of Israel. Just as we unequivocally support Israel's right of self-defence, so too Canada has long-supported a just and secure future for the Palestinian people," he said.

"And, I believe, we share with Israel a sincere hope that the Palestinian people and their leaders will choose a viable, democratic Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish State of Israel."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe