Invited to address the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, did not hold back in expressing his government's support for the Jewish state as the lonely and beleaguered democracy in the region. As Harper told members of the Knesset, "Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. And these are not mere notions. They are the things that, over time and against all odds, have proven to be, over and over again, the only ground in which human rights, political stability and economic prosperity may flourish.... through fire and water, Canada will stand with you."
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (left) introduces Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (center) at the Knesset podium, on Jan. 20, 2014. (Image source: Canada PM's Office)
Harper's address was a window into his heart and mind, and the clearest expression without any equivocation of how Canada, under his leadership, sees the bleak situation in the Middle East. It was also a message from leader of one of the G8 countries to member states of the UN, and especially to other Western democracies, that Canada's embrace of Israel transcends politics and is ethically grounded on moral principles. As Harper stated, "Canada supports Israel fundamentally because it is right to do so," because "the special relationship between Canada and Israel is rooted in shared values."
Harper's recent visit to Israel was his first since being elected prime minister in 2006 at the head of a minority Conservative Party government. His minority government was returned in the 2008 election, and then in May 2011 Harper's Conservatives finally won a majority in the Canadian parliament. Throughout this period Harper demonstrated an unflinchingly consistent, even politically courageous, support for Israel at home and abroad when such support has been seen by many as unwisely compromising Canada's even-handed approach in dealing with the problems of the region.
Canada has seen itself for a long time now as a "middle power", its influence in the world carefully harnessed through its role as a helpful fixer in the UN and other multilateral bodies. This role and the accompanying self-image over the past several decades assumed a default position for Canadian foreign policy when dealing with the developing countries of what until lately was described as the third world. It helped position Canada to be seen as an honest broker between the rich North and the poor South, and in this role Canada's political leaders through the Cold War years and after found they were regularly praised and courted by a majority of the UN member states. This meant, in time, that Canada's views on issues that garnered the support of a UN majority were also carefully crafted in part to maintain this position and image, and the diplomacy at work to effect such a result was also domestically resonant with a segment of the public that cared about Canada's image abroad.
The effectively quasi-permanent majority of the UN is comprised of developing countries of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America. Within this majority stands the Islamic bloc of 57 Arab and Muslim states – all are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – that, in voting together, can either make or break a majority vote at the UN. It is this influence of the OIC and the votes it can deliver that regularly isolates and reprimands Israel at the UN. It was the machinations of the Islamic bloc that led to the notorious passage of the UN General Assembly resolution in November 1975 declaring "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." And though this resolution was revoked in 1991 after the end of the Cold War, the Islamic bloc in the UN yet pulls enough weight in voting numbers for member states to be careful not to alienate it.
Canada's involvement in the Middle East goes back to the period immediately at the end of the Second World War. Canadians contributed significantly in blood and treasure through the war, and earned for their country a place in the council of Allied powers. Canada was present at the birth of the UN in San Francisco, and when the UN deliberated over Palestine in 1947-48 Canadians were in the thick of the negotiations. Lester Pearson, a Canadian diplomat then, in April 1947 was elected chairman of the First Committee, the body responsible to make recommendations to the General Assembly on all political issues brought to the UN; and the Canadian government appointed Justice Ivan Rand of the Supreme Court of Canada as delegate to the UN Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP). Both were involved in the eventual decision to partition Palestine into two states, one for the Arabs and the other for the Jews. Since then, in just about every major development related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Canada was at the ringside in the UN's effort to broker some sort of settlement. During the aftermath of the Suez War in 1956, Pearson, as Canada's Minister for External Affairs, invented the role of peacekeeping for the UN when he negotiated introducing UN Emergency Forces in the region to maintain and monitor the ceasefire. Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and thereafter Canada's role as the peacekeeper in the UN entered into the country's diplomatic folklore.
Canada's early record on the Middle East was primarily tactical. It was in large part driven by considerations of maneuvering between Britain and the U.S. over Palestine when the two powers differed over its partition, and on recognizing Israel. This record was tainted by the earlier decision not to open Canada to Jewish immigration when the European Jews were in most need of safety, and Harper recalled this history in his Knesset speech, stating "we have also periodically made terrible mistakes, as in the refusal of our government in the 1930s to ease the plight of Jewish refugees." But the support for the Jewish state once Canada recognized Israel was never in doubt, though this support in the UN was carefully managed not unnecessarily to unsettle relationships with the Arab states.
For most of the period after 1945 the Liberal Party governed Canada, hence it was responsible for formulating foreign policy and implementing it. In the years that followed, Canada also gradually changed as a result of a more open immigration policy, and immigrants from the Middle East and the Muslim world in time came to express their interests regarding foreign policy as it affected them or the places they left behind. The controversies of the Middle East were imported into Canada, and Ottawa's role in responding to the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict entered into domestic politics.
Under the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada adopted the policy of official multiculturalism. It was felt that the newly arriving immigrants, given their cultural diversity, should be assisted in becoming Canadians. But the politics of multiculturalism led political parties eventually to contend for immigrant votes, especially in the growing urban centers, by appealing to their concerns. As the numbers for immigrants from the Muslim world rapidly increased, Canada's foreign policy towards the Middle East became an issue in federal elections. It was therefore understood in Ottawa by the ruling Liberal Party that a balanced approach towards the Middle East meant working in tandem with the UN consensus approved by the Islamic bloc, while broadening the base of support for the party among the growing Muslim immigrant population, without unduly alarming the Jewish voters. This Liberal version of a balanced approach became entrenched institutionally in the government, in academia, and in the media; and questioning this approach was considered irresponsible.
In the post-9/11 world, the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien became even more cautious in stressing the importance of Canada's balanced approach towards the Middle East. Canada deployed soldiers in Afghanistan, in support of the UN resolutions, but Chretien's Liberals kept a wary distance from the U.S. involvement in Iraq. As organized Muslim opposition to President George W. Bush's "war on terror" became increasingly vocal, Chretien's insistence that Canada's role in the Middle East was entirely in keeping with the UN consensus meant following closely the views of the Islamic bloc. The result of such caution became indistinguishable from a policy of appeasing Muslim opinion, of remaining mostly silent in the face of rising anti-Semitism in Canada and abroad, and of watching without voicing any opposition to the spread of anti-Israel campaigns across the campuses of Canadian universities, with Israel regularly denounced as an "apartheid state."
It is this corrosive culture of anti-Israeli politics and the rise of the new anti-Semitism in the West that Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party were adamant to confront without any apology. It did not matter that Conservatives took power as a minority government in 2006 after more than a dozen years in opposition, and that for reasons of electoral politics might have decided to tread softly on issues relating to the Middle East. Instead Harper and his senior ministers, in particular Jason Kenney, openly and unapologetically spoke about support for Israel in language unheard of in Canada, while denouncing in no uncertain terms the paranoid politics of the anti-Israel groups.
This unapologetic support for Israel by Harper in Canada's parliament and at the UN earned the Conservatives the predictable disapproval of opponents at home and abroad. The Islamic bloc in the UN made it certain that Canada would not get the required votes for returning to the Security Council for the 2011-12 sessions. This was the first time in the UN history that Canada was denied the council seat as a rebuke for its embrace of Israel. Harper's opponents, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, were quick to seize upon this rebuke as evidence of how Harper had tarnished Canada's "even-handed" reputation at the UN.
Since Canada's more refined or elite opinion is mostly center-left, Harper's position on the Middle East is readily explained as an uncouth and self-serving effort to garner Jewish votes for the Conservative Party. Former Canadian diplomats such as Paul Heinbecker regularly warn Canadians how Harper's misguided policies have brought to ruin Canada's reputation, earned over the years as a reliable even-handed UN member. And academics such as Peter Jones, writing in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, sneers how the Harper "Conservatives hew to the dictates of the Israeli right in hopes of securing votes in Canada." What remains unexplained, however, is how this support for Israel is politically calculated to be a winner for the Conservatives, when Muslims in Canada outnumber Jews by almost three to one, according to the most recent census figures provided by Statistics Canada.
Harper has shown rare fortitude, however, and even rarer courage among the contemporary class of political leaders in Western democracies, in remaining steadfast in his support for Israel. Speaking in the Knesset, Harper stated, "Our view on Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state is absolute and non-negotiable." He talked about a world where "moral relativism today runs rampant... 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."
This is the new face of anti-Semitism, Harper noted: "It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel, and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable to a new generation." He repudiated the fashionable idea held by many in the West that the root cause of the problems in the Middle East is Israel. And to those who protest that criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, he rightly asked, "What else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to exist, to defend itself, while systematically ignoring, or excusing, the violence and oppression all around it?"
Stephen Harper's message to the Israelis, spoken in their parliament, did proud to all Canadians who expect their leaders to speak truthfully when it matters. In a world where the Jews have been treated appallingly just for beings Jews, where many states regularly berate Israel as a pariah state, and where the Holocaust still remains in the living memory of Jews, the appalling truth is how the denial of these truths grows and is expressed even within the UN that bears witness to it, and was responsible for the establishment of the Jewish state.
As the first Canadian prime minister to address the Knesset, Stephen Harper concluded his remarks by stating that in "the democratic family of nations, Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith and principles to drive our national life." This was not high praise and cheap politics, it was instead the summing up of the threads that bind the two democracies together in what rightly can be called a "special relationship." It is worth celebrating.