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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird takes part at a panel discussion during the Herziliya Conference. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Herzliya, Israel. (Dan Balilty/AP)
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird takes part at a panel discussion during the Herziliya Conference. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012, in Herzliya, Israel. (Dan Balilty/AP)

On the Middle East, Canadians give Baird room to play his hand Add to ...

In Israel this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared it would be a lot easier for the Harper government to go along with criticisms of Israel if it wanted to win votes. Then a poll found half of Canadians think the government has struck the right balance on the Middle East.

It means the government has plenty of political room in which to keep up a staunch pro-Israel policy.

There’s little doubt Stephen Harper’s government has taken a decidedly more pro-Israel tone. Mr. Baird underlined it in his speech Monday, saying Israel has no better friend than Canada.

Many assumed for years that Canadians want their government to stay neutral on Mideast issues. So this new poll, given the government’s shift in tone, seems to turn that on its head.

The Environics Institute poll found 48 per cent think the Harper government’s policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues “strikes the right balance.” Another 23 per cent said it is too pro-Israel, 3 per cent said it is too pro-Palestinian, and 27 per cent didn’t know.

The results are a surprise to some who have been involved in Canada’s Middle East policy. Past polls, like a 2007 survey sponsored by the BBC, have found more Canadians have a negative view of Israel than a positive one. They believed something like neutrality was the public will.

Was the assumption wrong? Have views changed?

Notably, the answer Canadians have given to the question in the Environics Institute poll hasn’t changed much in recent years. Forty-nine per cent thought prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberals struck the right balance back in 2001. Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute, said the public hasn’t changed its assessment as the Conservative government changed policy.

Why not? Depends who you ask. Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, says most Canadians never thought “balanced” meant never taking sides, as many in the bureaucracy and elites did.

“I don’t think Canadians were ever interested in us being neutral. But they are interested in us having a balanced, thoughtful approach,” he said. “Canadians were not necessarily aware or understanding of what a balanced approach looks like. In an earlier time, it was interchangeable with neutral – we praise one thing, we criticize the other.”

Canadians, he argued, like the sense their government speaks directly in a dysfunctional debate. But Ottawa retains the level of balance they want, he said – supporting negotiations toward a two-state solution and offering aid to the Palestinian Authority.

On the other side, Rula Odeh, a board member of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations, thinks Canadians just don’t know the government’s positions are out of step with theirs.

She noted the same poll found Canadians disagree with the government on a specific policy: 36 per cent supported the Palestinian bid to be recognized as a state by the UN, while 11 per cent opposed it. The government has vocally criticized the bid.

Mr. Neuman suggests the fact 53 per cent had no opinion on that question is a clue to the real bottom line. A small proportion feel directly invested in the issue, but most don’t follow the twists of Canadian policy, he said.

Another pollster, who declined to be named because his surveys on the issue are confidential, said it’s more than that. Most Canadians turn off. It’s complicated and intractable in their eyes, and they don’t have high hopes for a solution, he said: “Most don’t see a white hat in that fight.”

The politicians will watch for the small numbers who are intensely interested, and what ridings they live in, particularly in the Jewish community and among some Muslim-Canadians, and some others. But there’s little broad reaction in public opinion. “It suggests the government has some latitude,” Mr. Neuman said.

The upshot is that the Harper government has political space for its staunchly pro-Israel foreign policy. They aren’t running into a brick wall of public opinion, far from it. They have political leeway. You can bet they already knew that.

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