Israel’s new ‘best friend’?

Canadian governments have moved against international trends to deepen ties with Israel.

Canada flag
Netanyahu’s visit to Canada will be the first by a sitting Israeli PM since 1994 [GALLO/GETTY]

When Binyamin Netanyahu arrives in Canada on Friday, immediately following the ceremony in Paris to introduce Israel to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it will mark the first visit to Ottawa by a sitting Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.

During his last visit, in 2002, Netanyahu’s closed door speech at Concordia University in Montreal sparked a riot that made headlines around the world.

In the years since, as Israel has found itself increasingly isolated on the world stage, successive Canadian governments have moved against the trend and deepened ties with Israel – something that Netanyahu is keen to protect.

“What Netanyahu is trying to do is cement the base,” said Dr David Bercuson, the director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and author of Canada and the Birth of Israel.

“The Israeli diplomatic position is deteriorating and he’s trying to keep the stalwarts in place.”

A peak in relations

While key Canadian diplomatic support for Israel dates back to the creation of the state, relations have never been stronger.

In early 2006, immediately following the election of Hamas, Canada was the first country in the world to boycott the new government, ahead even of Israel.

“Not a red cent to Hamas,” said Peter MacKay, the then Canadian foreign minister, setting the tone for a crippling blockade that the United Nations has called “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times”.

Perhaps the high-water mark came in the summer of 2006, as Israel launched a massive military response to a Hezbollah raid on an Israeli patrol on the border with Lebanon.

As Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, was en route to the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Russia – during the first week of a war that saw some 1,400 Lebanese killed, the majority of them civilians – he made an impromptu three minute speech to the reporters on his plane, expressing unequivocal support for Israel’s bombing of Lebanon.

“I think Israel’s response under the circumstances has been measured,” he said, backing Israel’s right to defend itself and placing the “onus” for the war on Hezbollah.

As the death toll mounted in the days and weeks that followed, Harper did not budge from his position. In fact, he used the G8 summit and the subsequent gathering of the Francophonie to actively block ceasefire resolutions that were increasingly supported, even by the US.

That summer, Harper made headlines in the Middle East when he called Hezbollah and Hamas “genocidal” and MacKay characterised Hezbollah as a “cancer”.

At a press conference in Jerusalem in early 2007, Tzipi Livni, the then Israeli foreign minister, described Canada-Israel relations in laudatory terms.

“Since its election in January 2006, the Canadian government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has maintained particularly warm relations with Israel,” said Livni. “Bilateral and diplomatic ties are currently at their peak.”

Livni also referred to Canada as being at “the forefront” of efforts to isolate Iran over the nuclear issue.

Successive Canadian naval deployments patrol the Iranian coast and the Straits of Hormuz with US aircraft carrier battle groups.

A political consensus

This support is not simply a reflection of a right-wing government.

“The differences between the Liberals and Conservatives are vastly overstated,” said Bercuson, who is also a member of the Canadian Jewish Congress board of directors and a senior advisor to the Department of National Defence.

“Even in those periods when people might have said the Liberal government was more even-handed about the Middle East  – that’s more legend than reality.”

In 2004, under Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, Canada abstained from the United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for Israel to respect the International Court of Justice ruling against its West Bank wall, which it called illegal, said should be dismantled and that those impacted should be compensated.

Palestinian security forces

Dr Mark Heller, the principal research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies characterised the relationship between Israel and Canada as “entrenched and routinised”.

“For a long time there have been good relations between the Canadian and Israeli defence establishments,” he said.

On the ground in Israel and Palestine, active support has matched the rhetorical commitments.

In 2005, immediately following Israel’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza, Canada dispatched a top official from the Canada Border Services Agency, Denis Lefebvre, to advise Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the earlier stages of the blockade of Gaza.

It was at this juncture that Canada began funding and training Palestinian forces to monitor the sealed borders of the Gaza Strip, under the auspices of General Keith Dayton, the US security coordinator.

Known at the time as the Karni Project, named after the principle commercial crossing into Gaza, the initiative was a covert – though not clandestine – effort to train a pliable security force to work with Israel.

A Jerusalem Post analysis tabbed the project as “a prototype for the running of Palestine”.

Provocations by Dahlan’s security forces were seen by Hamas and many others, including neo-conservative David Wursmer, Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East advisor, as precipitating the Hamas takeover in Gaza. The project, Wurmser told Vanity Fair, saw the US and its Canadian allies “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship with victory”.

On the heels of the Hamas takeover, Canada re-instituted its funding for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and redoubled its efforts to back Dayton’s security forces training initiative to back appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and to prevent the Hamas government from taking power in the West Bank.

In many crucial ways, Canada is the heart of the Dayton project – 18 of the training officers are Canadian and 10 are American.

During his only public policy speech, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2009, Dayton lauded the role of Canadian forces officers, calling them his “road warriors” and his indispensable “eyes and ears” on the ground.

“The Canadians have been extremely helpful to us throughout,” Fayyad told Al Jazeera last summer, citing Canada’s efforts in not only the security sector but also governance and working at “international fora” in an effort to create legitimacy for Fayyad’s impending unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Indeed, Canada recently removed longstanding funding for UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugee affairs, and reallocated it to Fayyad’s security project.

Canada dispatched a senior cabinet minister to Ramallah in January 2010 to announce the funding switch.

Vic Toews, the then head of the Canadian treasury, told the Palestinian Authority that the funding was being “redirected in accordance with Canadian values”.

“Our paramount concern is the security of Israel,” said Toews, who has since been promoted to minister of public safety, the Canadian equivalent to the interior ministry.

Forging economic and military ties

In early 2009, Canada deployed a fleet of leased Israeli drones in the service of its counterinsurgency war in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a contract that was extended earlier this month.

In February, the stock exchanges of Tel Aviv and Toronto signed a memorandum of understanding to deepen cooperation.

Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario, Canada’s largest and richest province, is in Israel this week on a trade mission looking to boost a trade relationship that has increased by 86 per cent since 2004, and tripled since 1996 when Canada and Israel signed a bilateral free trade agreement.

As the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement gains momentum, Canada stands in stark contrast to the international trend.

This is not lost on Israel’s top leadership.

Netanyahu used the occasion of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in November to single out Canada. “I know there are many Canadian friends with us here today,” he said. “I wish to extend my thanks to Prime Minister Harper for his staunch support for Israel’s right of self-defence.”

Flying immediately from Paris to Ottawa is not a coincidence. For Netanyahu and the Canadian government, it is a potent symbol of the unique relationship between Canada and Israel.

Source: Al Jazeera