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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Harper's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Harper's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 31, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Leaders call for investigation before condemnation of flotilla attack Add to ...

On a day of denunciations and demonstrations, Stephen Harper stood by Benjamin Netanyahu Monday and signalled that Canada's support for Israel has not wavered, expressing regret at the loss of life during the raid on Gaza-bound ships, while calling for patience.

Across the aisle of the Commons, there was virtual silence on the incident. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who once accused Israel of war crimes and has since been repairing ties with Canada's Jewish community, echoed the wait-and-see reaction in a written statement. Only the Bloc Québécois raised the matter in Question Period.

The crisis led the Israeli Prime Minister to cut short his visit, cancelling a joint press conference and calling off a trip to Washington. But he did not rush to the airport until he and Mr. Harper had completed several hours of meetings, first head-to-head, then with officials. Between talks, they brought in cameras for a photo session, where Mr. Harper made clear that Mr. Netanyahu's welcome was undiminished.

"Prime Minister, as I told you, Canada deeply regrets this action, the loss of life and the injury that have occurred. Obviously we'll be looking in the days that follow to get all the information we can get, to find out exactly what has transpired," he said. "I'm sorry this has coloured this, but delighted you were able to join me at least tonight and today, and we've had some important talks."

Mr. Harper wished Mr. Netanyahu well as the photographers left: "Thank you, Prime Minister," he said. "God speed on your return."

The response brought a predictably divided reaction at home. B'nai Brith Canada lauded Mr. Harper for avoiding a "kangaroo court" rush to judgment against Israel. Rula Odeh, president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, said controversy-shy Canadian politicians should have criticized Israel's boarding of a ship in international waters.

"I think the politicians are afraid to speak up and face being labelled anti-Israel and anti-Semitic," Ms. Odeh said.

The two smaller parties, the Bloc and NDP, called for an international investigation - and for Mr. Harper to demand such a probe.

"At first, it seems that no one should do such a thing in international waters, but we want to have the real picture of what happened, and I think a real inquiry done by an international body would [shed]light on the situation," said Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe. "The Harper government has always backed - the worst favour you can do for a friend is never criticize a decision another country might take."

A Conservative source said the government feels facts on the case are missing, and how the confrontation turned so bloody remains an open question.

But Canada is also concerned that an overly hasty condemnation of Israel will increase instability in the Middle East, hurting not only diplomatic efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but efforts to enact sanctions against Iran as well. Mr. Harper's line echoed Mr. Obama's, and the two leaders spoke by phone Monday afternoon.

Having lent its voice to international support for Israel's efforts to interdict arms going to Gaza, the Harper government was willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. Harper's Conservatives have staunchly backed Israel since 2006, insisting that it is a democracy that shares Canadian values in a region of authoritarian and sometimes hostile regimes. It is a stance that has earned the party votes among Canada's Jewish community.

Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals face competing political pressures from the Jewish community and large numbers of Muslim-Canadians in the urban and suburban ridings they hold in cities such as Toronto and Montreal.

In his first leadership bid in 2006, Mr. Ignatieff stepped into controversy over the Lebanon war, first saying he wasn't losing sleep over civilian deaths and then calling the Israeli shelling of Qana a war crime. He apologized for the war-crime remark later, in 2008, and has made efforts to mend fences with the Jewish community.

The Liberal Leader, who was scheduled to meet Mr. Netanyahu before the Israeli Prime Minister cut short his trip, issued a statement Monday afternoon that said more explanations are needed.

"While we will always support Israel's right to self-defence, a measured response is important when dealing with security threats in this region," he said in the statement. "Given the loss of civilian lives, we are expecting clarification on exactly what happened."

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