The Baffling Politics of Stephen Harper and Israel

A country that could lead globally is mired in a leader’s myths from the 19th century.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament in Jerusalem. [AP]

When one looks at official Canadian government policy towards Israel and Palestine, there doesn’t seem to be much that is outstanding. Beyond the language on UN resolutions that provide Canada with room to protect Israel, the basic pillars are all there: Two-state solution, anti-settlements, reference to UN resolution 194 for refugees, etc. Yet, everyone knows that the Canadian prime minister’s heart and soul, and his rhetoric, are firmly on one side: With Israel.

The state of Israel embodies principles that Canada values and respects,” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went on his first offical trip to Israel, as well as to the West Bank and Jordan – a journalist in Toronto remarked to me how happy the often-glum Stephen Harper seemed in the Holy Land.

Harper is on an official tour of the region. [AP]

The media conversation in Canada has been considerable regarding the visit. It has focused on the large size of the visitng delegation, and questioned the wisdom and motivation of this ample devotion to Israel. Is it calculated interest or a moral drive? Some point out that Harper has much to lose by this stance. The parliamentary electoral gains among the Jewish community, although key to three seats in Toronto, are small in comparison to losses among the Muslim community. Certainly, in Europe, where I live, people are baffled by Canada’s zealous support for Israel.

Indeed, many Israelis, and not only leftists, take their own politicians’ rhetoric less seriously than Harper does.

“He [Harper] can be a member of the Jewish Homeland party [an Israeli right wing party]”, one Israeli commented to me.

I have often mused whether even Benjamin Netanyahu, despite public gratitude for Harper’s steadfastness, does not also privately wonder about Canada’s position. After all, other Western countries give him a much harder time regarding settlements and pursuing peace, and the calculations in the Middle East more concrete. Why this free ride from Ottawa? In 2011, Harper blocked a G8 communique aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks, against American wishes, because it called for Israel’s return to the 1967 borders.

This general bafflement may be because Harper’s stance is personal and ideological, not calculated interest. He may embrace a deeply held view of Israel’s place in Christian eschatology, a “moral” position where Israel’s existence rights historical wrongs, while also heralding of a Christian messianic future. This translates politically into a view that Israel is a country under threat that needs to be defended – more like Israel of 1966 than 2013.

“Canada supports Israel, fundamentally, because it is right to do so,” said the Prime Minister in his speech to the Knesset, a discourse which a CBC reporter said could have been written by Netanyahu. A world of greys does not suit Mr Harper as much as a landscape where one side is decidedly right, and the other decidedly wrong. The fact that the creation of Israel, no matter what one’s views on that, has also done another people, the Palestinians, a significant wrong, has little space in this universe. Such contradictions hold little sway in the world of cartoons, of good guys and bad guys, that Mr Harper inhabits.

The fact that the creation of Israel has also done another people a significant wrong has little space in this universe. Such contradictions hold little sway in the world of cartoons, of good guys and bad guys, that Mr Harper inhabits.

Of course, this will be denied. The Canadian Government will point to the announcement of $66 million as a sign of new support for Palestinians, in addition to $30 million last year (a total that is half of previous commitments on a yearly basis).

But, despite the clever legerdemain, the spin, and the stated official positions, Palestinians come a distant second in Mr Harper’s calculations. They are an addendum to the myths of Israel as a bastion of Western civilization. The Palestinians, however, are not the enemies of the West, they are simply a people still ruled by another, and unhappy about it, which is the most human of sentiments.

Mr Harper is the leader of what may still be the most human of countries, a nation that is expert at keeping political emotions low, and avoiding ideological madness – two keys to finding constructive solutions. In that sense, he represents an exceptional nation, a country rare in its avoidance of national zeal. Yet, the PM is working hard to make it as “unexceptional” as all others: nationalistic, and very certain of its right and wrongs. In this view, Canada as a land of acceptance of difference, and of rule of law is a far second to the excitement of Canadians dying at Vimy Ridge, in Afghanistan, and, potentially, of the F-18 fighter defending Israel against Iran. Not far from this “rebalancing” is the search for national glory and the distant beating of the drums of war, i.e. the absolutely last thing the Middle East needs more of.

Meanwhile, in the reality of the region, in the Palestinian refugee camps that he will not visit, the Palestinians, for all their mistakes, are a people equal to the Israelis in their need for an independent state, a capital in Jerusalem, and in having their historical trauma recognised as much as the Jewish one. Many world leaders and diplomats are working this ground, deep in the muck and the greys, trying to find accomodation and solution, while others dream of right and wrong.

The irony of it all is that, although Canada has suffered rebuke for its position, including the possible loss of its bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2011, the country’s reputation has not been permanently damaged. Somehow, Canada’s image, as a country of tolerance, has withstood the PM’s fervent attempt to paint it in sharper and more dramatic historical colours.

The whole affair may come down to one man’s world view, Stephen Harper’s, a fantasy while a long suffering Middle East goes on with its battle of tribes, its shifting sands, and its endless “tale of sound and fury”. His positions may simply not matter so much there. When Mr Harper moves on, Canada, its people and its public servants may well return to a more natural role but, in the meantime, the cost is paid by the diminishing of an exceptional country: Harper’s positions on the Middle East matter less than the opportunity cost to Canada’s role as a catalyst of solutions. A country that could lead globally through its highly educated population, and its past excellence in multilateral diplomacy (not only on the Middle East but on climate change) is mired in a leader’s myths from the 19th century, while the realities and challenges of the 21st rage on.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East and Mediterranean Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat with over two decades of experience in the Middle East.