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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, on May 27, 2011. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, on May 27, 2011. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

On Mideast peace and Arab Spring, Harper stands apart Add to ...

At a summit that other G8 leaders framed as an effort to seize a moment of opportunity for democracy and peace in the Arab world, Stephen Harper was not swept up: He blocked statements aimed at prodding Israel into peace talks, and was cool to calls to deliver aid to Arab nations that have ousted dictators.

Mr. Harper's opposition prevented a call for Mideast peace talks based on Israel's 1967 borders, plus negotiated land swaps - which U.S. President Barack Obama had been pushing - from being included in the G8 declaration. And while the summit pledged a multibillion dollar package of assistance to Egypt and Tunisia to back their transition to democracy, Mr. Harper did not pledge Canadian aid.

But while his stand on statements regarding Israel annoyed some G8 colleagues, and his decision not to offer aid disappointed others, Mr. Harper offered stalwart support on an issue that matters more to many of them: He said Canada will extend its three-month military mission in the NATO intervention in Libya.

Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, said Mr. Harper's stand has created ambiguity about Canada's long-standing Mideast policy that there be two states based on 1967 borders plus mutual concessions, and has effectively shifted it.

Now a veteran among G8 leaders with six summits under his belt, Mr. Harper came to the seaside resort of Deauville in northern France as a more politically secure majority Prime Minister, and displayed, at times, an unwillingness to accommodate the cherished political goals of his most powerful allies.

A staunch ally of Israel, he blocked the planned recommendations on Mideast peace talks even though the terms are a key part of U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign to revive negotiations as pro-democracy movements sprout in the Arab world.

But Mr. Harper said those terms were only part of the position Mr. Obama laid out in a May 19 speech. The Prime Minister said he couldn't accept mention of Israel's 1967 borders unless the G8 also referred to Mr. Obama's calls for Palestinian concessions.

"You can't cherry pick elements of that speech," Mr. Harper told reporters at the close of the summit.

"I think if you're going to get into other elements, obviously I would like to see reference to elements that were also in President Obama's speech. Such as, for instance, the fact that one of the states must be a Jewish state. The fact that the Palestinian state must be demilitarized."

Other G8 leaders had endorsed Mr. Obama's stand on the borders as a way of pushing Israel to accept concessions to re-launch peace talks. But Israel rejected it, because the idea evokes the return of prized territory such as East Jerusalem.

Some members of other G8 leaders' delegations complained, in the words of one European diplomat, that "the Canadians were really very adamant" that the G8's communiqué not mention Israel's 1967 borders.

Mr. Sarkozy, without naming Mr. Harper, told reporters it made sense to refer to 1967 borders. "I think it's appropriate to talk about the 1967 border, because we can't talk about borders without specifying which ones," he said.

The G8's final statement, however, fudged the issue. It called for peace talks now, and endorsed Mr. Obama's speech, without reference to borders.

Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, said that if the United States wanted a statement that mentioned 1967 borders and Canada was unwilling "this would not have been welcomed in Washington."

However, B'nai Brith Canada said that it is proud of Mr. Harper for taking what it called "such a principled position on the world stage."

At the G8, Mr. Harper also stood at a distance from the summit's centrepiece push to embrace the Arab Spring democracy movements with a pledge of economic assistance starting with Egypt and Tunisia - to bolster the flagging economies of two countries that ousted dictators earlier this year.

The G8 communiqué said $20-billion would be mustered from the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, and that G8 nations would offer more in bilateral aid - $10 billion, according to Mr. Sarkozy. But Mr. Harper insisted that Canada's part would be done through its existing capital contributions to development banks.

While Mr. Obama, Mr. Sarkozy, and Britain's David Cameron portrayed the financial assistance as a grand offer that would help Arab nations replace extremism with democracy, Mr. Harper didn't voice the same enthusiasm. "We will do our part of the actions of our G8 partners on that," he said.

Mr. Harper, according to one official, doesn't see Egypt and Tunisia as priority nations. Unlike Haiti, they are not relatively nearby, so direct aid would be more important for European nations, which are closer, and the United States, which has strategic ties to Egypt. They are also not among the world's poorest countries, so Mr. Harper views development banks as the more appropriate avenue for its part of the aid.

In fact, Mr. Harper pointed to Canada's military mission as its major contribution to Arab democracy movements.

And while that may not be the full embrace of the Arab Spring his G8 colleagues urged, it may smooth ruffled feathers. Key allies in the group, like Mr. Obama but especially Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Cameron, have sunk much political capital into an expanding military mission and are eager to keep a broad coalition of allies on board.

Mr. Obama's push for Mideast peace talks, and his message, have already won vocal backing from major players around the world, so the watered-down language of the G8's formal statement is unlikely to be a major blow. Mr. Sarkozy's Arab Spring package never relied on Canadian dollars. But Mr. Harper's extension of the Libyan military mission offered his colleagues something they wanted more.

With reports from John Ibbitson and Reuters News Agency

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