Jerusalem and Ramallah – At a time of increasing tensions between Israel and Europe over Israel’s ongoing construction in areas acquired in the 1967 war, and amid nervousness over a new American framework peace plan due to be announced any day, Israelis were happy to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as one of Israel’s staunchest friends among national leaders. In contrast during his visit to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, tension was evident.
Harper, an evangelical Christian who heads Canada's Conservative Party, is in the region for four days at the head of an especially large delegation consisting of more than 200 politicians and business leaders. Included in the group are six cabinet ministers and six members of Parliament.
On Monday, Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to address the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), an honor previously bestowed upon such notables as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; King Juan Carlos of Spain; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and former and present French Presidents Francois Mitterand and Francois Hollande.
Among Israelis, Harper is known for his consistent support for the Jewish state and for his close personal relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who hosted a private dinner in his honor. Israel Schwartz, a Canadian-Israeli delegate to the Harper mission, explained to The Media Line that Harper's father's admonition that, "the Jewish people have suffered enough," plays a role in the Canadian Prime Minister's determination that Israel must be "independent in defending itself." In his remarks before the Knesset, Harper said his nation supports "the Jewish State of Israel for no reason other than it is the right thing to do."
To Israeli diplomats who are hosting a succession of international leaders far more critical of its policies than Harper, the Canadian's visit stands in contrast. “Stephen Harper has been very clear, very public and very straightforward in his policies,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirshson told The Media Line. “It’s not because he’s doing us a favor. It’s because he believes it’s what’s right for Canada. It’s a nice feeling having him here.”
Despite the welcome warmth, some Israelis believe that Canada is nevertheless not as important on the diplomatic front. Jonathan Livny, an Israeli lawyer, told The Media Line that, "I have Canadian clients, but Israel doesn't really care about Canada. They don't see Canada as having the same kind of international significance as the United States."
It was not surprising to many that the atmosphere was more tense during Harper's visit to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah earlier in the day. A Palestinian source speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press characterized the mood as "tense," noting that the Canadian security detail was larger than that of most other heads of government visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas .
In his remarks in Ramallah, Abbas thanked Harper for Canada's financial aid and said he hoped relations between Canada and the Palestinians would improve. Abbas took note of Canada's decision to vote against Palestinian statehood at the United Nations when Ottawa took the position of the United States and Israel that statehood could come only as the result of negotiations between the parties rather than by a unilateral act.
Some Palestinians were skeptical that Harper could make a real contribution to the Palestinian push for an independent state.
“We’re not really expecting anything because he is completely pro-Israel,” a senior Palestinian official told The Media Line. “He is coming to drink coffee with Abu Mazen (Abbas’s nickname) and get his picture taken. That’s it.”
But others felt the visit offered a chance to improve the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Canada.
“At the beginning of peace process in 1993, and for years after until 1998/ 2000, Canada was part of the multinational talks and dialogue on refugees. Canada was involved in supporting (the Palestinian Authority) in some way, not like Norway, the EU or the US, but it was 'acceptable' to offer support towards the Palestinian economy,” Dr. Saadi El Krunz, a former Palestinian minister of Industry and Trade told The Media Line. “After the Intifada broke out in 2000, a pro-Israeli, right-wing government emerged in Canada. It almost stopped all kind of support to the Palestinians. There was little dialogue between us and the Canadians. Canada did not even attend important meetings for donors. "
Krunz, currently a professor of finance at Al-Quds University, said he hoped Harper’s visit to the West Bank would encourage him to take a more even-handed approach on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“The Jewish community has great influence over the Canadian government which influences decisions on the Middle East,” he said. ” Canada is working in the interest of Israel.”
Harper’s delegation includes prominent Jewish leaders.
“Prime Minister Harper represents the sentiments of most Canadians who recognize Israel as a liberal democracy which protects its minorities and the rights of individuals,” David Kuschitzky, chairman of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told The Media Line. He represents the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.
Elections are due to be held in Canada next year. Kuschitzky said that even if the National Democratic Party, headed by Thomas Mulcair, wins, Canada’s support for Israel would remain steady.
“If there was a change of government, it would be the exact same thing,” Kuschitzky said. “The bottom line is that Israel and Canada have shared values that cement the bond that is blind to party politics.”
Other members of the delegation said that the Conservative party is popular because the Canadian economy is stable and has weathered the world recession.
"Harper might not be the most charismatic, but he is a man of principle and sticks to his principles. He does not yield because something is not politically correct,” according to Shwartz. "Conservatism is not popular in the world arena today, but it does keep society and culture in place. In 2015, I believe that the Conservatives will win on the platform of 'economy and integrity,' even if it's not by a large margin. The Canadian economy is at its peak; it was able to maintain its economy better than G-8 countries during the turndown of 2008."
Not everyone agrees. Laurence W. Zeifman, another businessman in the Harper entourage believes Israel would lose the intensity of its relationship with Canada if Harper were to lose power. "I do not trust the Canadian Liberal Party leadership nor the New Democratic Party to maintain such a relationship. Either of them, if elected, will abandon principled leadership on the Middle East and revert to Canada's traditional record of following Europe's lead."
Economic ties between Israel and Canada are very strong. Since 1997, the two countries have had a free-trade agreement. In 2009, the scope of trade between them was $1.3 billion. The large delegation of businessmen traveling with Harper hope to sign new deals and expand business ties even further.
Canadian entrepreneur Alan Greenberg, chairman of GreenSoil Investments, explained Canada's benefits from doing business with Israel. "It is important for Canada and the world to access the Israeli innovation pipeline. In the past two years." Greenberg said that in the past two years his company has invested in five innovative Israeli food and agro technology companies. "We couldn't find similar technologies anywhere in the world," Greenberg explained. "We are confident these companies will help ease the global food crises."
In his warmly-received speech to a packed Knesset chamber, Harper singled-out defense cooperation, saying the use of Israeli military technology during Canada's Afghanistan mission "saved the lives of Canadian soldiers."
Abdullah Erakat contributed to this report from Ramallah.
Article by Felice Friedson and Linda Gradstein
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line