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The Harper Government’s Attitude To Israel Goes From Unhinged To Deranged

February 23, 2010

I’ve always thought that Stephen Harper’s conservatives were frankly unhinged when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, it’s a subject that arouses strong passions, and you can’t blame people too much for leaning heavily one way or the other. Some among us instinctively sympathise and even identify with displaced Palestinians confronting a combative nation that far outstrips them in wealth and military power, while others find it equally easy to imagine themselves in the shoes of Israelis trying to defend their embattled democracy from endless denunciations and occasional storms of rockets.

However, I think it’s fair to say that most Canadians can probably see both sides of the story to at least some extent, but the same can hardly be said of Stephen Harper. On his watch, Canada has been perhaps Israel’s most vociferous international cheerleader, always ready to boycott an anti-racism summit or condemn a UN report in order to distance itself from anything that smacks of anti-Zionism. The Canadian NGOs KAIROS and Rights & Democracy both appear to have got themselves on the wrong side of the Harperites by showing excessive sympathy to Palestinians, although it’s only fair to acknowledge that there may be a lot more to the story at least in the case of Rights & Democracy. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Harper was perfectly clear about where he stood:

“When it comes to dealing with a war between Israel and a terrorist organization, this country and this government cannot and will never be neutral,” said Harper. “Those who seek to destroy the Jews, who seek to destroy Israel, will ultimately seek to destroy us all. It is why Canada’s new government has reacted with speed and spoken with clarity on the recent events in the Middle East.”

This only goes to show that Harper’s brand of “clarity” is sometimes a highly unrealistic way of looking at the world. Referring to Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization” was an oversimplification, but this paled by comparison to the implausibility of insisting that Hezbollah was out to “destroy the Jews” (not merely to seize territory) and even to “destroy us all”. To inflate a conflict over pieces of land that would all fit comfortably inside Nova Scotia into something approaching a global apocalypse is just, well, unhinged. Like I said.

For the most part, though, the Harper government’s seemingly unquestioning support for Israel has been more a matter of words than actions. It certainly hasn’t been too damaging to Canadian interests, and I’ve been inclined to see it as just one more reason to roll my eyes in the general direction of Ottawa – a bit of foolishness to be filed alongside Gary Goodyear’s creationism and Jim Prentice’s solemn insistence that Canada cannot possibly have its own climate change policy.

However, things may have got more serious earlier this month, when Junior Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Kent said something to a publication called Shalom Life that appeared to go well beyond previous Tory statements:

He expressed Canada’s continued friendship and support of Israel. “Prime Minister Harper has made it quite clear for some time now and has regularly stated that an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada,” said Kent and added that Israel is considered an ally of Canada.

I suppose it’s not a huge step from “Those… who seek to destroy Israel, will ultimately seek to destroy us all” to “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada”, but it’s nevertheless a significant step and one that should never have been taken without a great deal of parliamentary and public discussion. Of course, we already have a formal understanding with other NATO powers that an attack on one is an attack on all. I would be happy to see Canada take the same attitude to Australia and New Zealand, which are practically our sister nations. But Israel? A Middle Eastern country with which Canada has no particularly close historical or cultural ties, and no major shared interests? I sympathise with the Israelis and don’t blame them in the least for trying to hold what they see as their ancestral land, but to link their security to Canada’s seems, once again, unhin… No, it doesn’t. It seems positively deranged.

It bears pointing out that Kent seemed to row back a little from this apparent commitment to defending Israel in a subsequent interview with the Globe and Mail. Nevertheless, someone in Torydom should stand up and say unambiguously that, while Canada regards Israel as a friendly nation, we are not automatically going to leap to their military defence. Considering how much we sometimes fret about the possibility of becoming the 51st state, it would be a shame if we ended up as the 7th mehoz.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Dlkw permalink
    December 5, 2011 7:02 pm

    Wow, it’s refreshing to read an objective article! Great job! Wish more people thought this way.

  2. Solange permalink
    March 28, 2010 1:56 pm

    I am ashamed to be Canadian when my government can react so arrogantly and support Israel. STOP being so fucking politically correct Harper. You are nothing but Washington’s lap dog. Have the balls to take a fucking stance, that while it goes against the grain is hardly anti Jewish. Would we have been racist to stand against Germany leading to the war? The fucking Jews have got to get their heads out of their asses and quit with the rhetoric of being a people attacked by terrorists. Your government attacks the Palestinians, and they are supposed to roll over and play dead? When they respond in resistance they are terrorists? OH PLEASE! ENOUGH WITH THE DRIBBLE ABOUT HOW HARD THEY HAVE IT. I am pro Palestinian and if fighting for the rights of Palestinians makes me ANYTHING it is a seeker of justice. Not fucking racist!

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 29, 2010 12:04 pm

      I don’t blame the Palestinians for resisting Israel, and I would like to see Canada adopt a much more even-handed stance to the whole conflict. In my opinion, however, referring to Israelis who adopt the rhetoric of counter-terrorism simply as “the Jews” (let alone “the fucking Jews”!) is misleading and unhelpful. There are lots of Jews who are not Israelis, and lots of Jews (including some Israeli Jews) who can see the Palestinian side of the story. Some of them are just as passionate about defending the Palestinians as you seem to be.

  3. nmboudin permalink
    March 4, 2010 10:23 pm

    You seem to recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, but you chide at Canada’s decision to treat it as an ally as a bit of foolishness. As for your point about Australia and New Zealand, a declaration of allegiance would be an appropriate statement if these were countries that were surrounded by enemies who refused to recognize their existence. That is why the declaration is appropriate when addressed to Israel, in the same way it was appropriate to offer help to Chile in its hour of need.

    It seems that you do not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, one which is tightly aligned with a network of others that share its Islamist ideology. People like that do not stop at Israel for furthering their aims, which is to intimidate countries that practice freedom of religion and women’s rights. Israel is the canary in the coalmine because it is a Western democracy with the audacity to exist proximally to the region with the highest concentration of radical Islamists.

    Harper sees those who wish to overthrow democracies as a threat to Canada, and though he may have used hyperbole, a common political strategy, he has taken a stance against jihadists by declaring allegiance with Israel. The act of turning its back on Israel is not guaranteed to keep Canada in the good books of theocracies and petrocracies.

    Many see Israel as a wealthy, powerful country, but it is stretched painfully in every direction to protect itself. So while there is a push to abandon Israel and declare it a pariah state, I am pleased that in addition to Canada, the US, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany decided to boycott the Durban Review in Geneva.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 5, 2010 1:55 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Lots to address, of course.

      It seems that you do not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, one which is tightly aligned with a network of others that share its Islamist ideology.

      I don’t think it’s incorrect to call Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, but I do think that it’s a little beside the point. Hezbollah is a group that does a lot of things, and yes, launching terrorist attacks is one of them. It’s a ruthless tactic to say the least, but its use doesn’t say that much about the group’s aims or motivations.

      Of course Hezbollah is aligned in some sense with other Islamist groups. I’m not sure the alignment is all that tight, though. Different groups will prefer different approaches, and be motivated by different factors depending (in part) on where they are and what opposing pressures they’re up against.

      People like that do not stop at Israel for furthering their aims, which is to intimidate countries that practice freedom of religion and women’s rights.

      This is the bit of your comment that I find hardest to swallow. Hezbollah’s primary problem with Israel has nothing to do with, say, the percentage of women in the Knesset or the fact that there’s (apparently) a Zen Centre in Tel Aviv coexisting with all the churches, mosques and synagogues; it’s about control over territory and holy sites. From Hezbollah’s perspective, the land that is now Israel rightfully belongs to Muslim Arabs. I’m sure they have lots of ideologues who would argue that the whole world ought to be under Islamic control, but the claim has far more emotive power when made with respect to bits of land that (1) were seized by Israel within living memory, (2) have been under Muslim rule for most of the period since the Crusades, and/or (3) are littered with Islamic shrines and tombs and God (or at least Allah) knows what else. This is not to say that the Israelis don’t have a claim to much of that real estate that is at least equally good; of course they do. But the point is that Hezbollah, and similar groups, have motivations that are a lot more specific than some general ideological animus against us infidels.

      Harper sees those who wish to overthrow democracies as a threat to Canada…

      Personally, I never signed up to be a member of Team Democracy. I really don’t see why Canadians should feel a strong connection to a foreign country just because it has a broadly similar system of government. Of course, I accept that a lot of people feel differently – but they should ask themselves how they would react if, for example, a free and fair vote were finally held in Egypt and brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The possibility that an election would turn out that way is hardly a remote one.

      So while there is a push to abandon Israel and declare it a pariah state, I am pleased that in addition to Canada, the US, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany decided to boycott the Durban Review in Geneva.

      I don’t think Canada should treat Israel as a pariah at all – I’m entirely in favour of trade, tourism, academic exchanges, full diplomatic links, even the occasional arms deal. I just don’t think we should be making open-ended promises to intervene on Israel’s side in any potential conflict, and Peter Kent came way too close to that for comfort.

      As I remember, much of the rhetoric at the Durban Review was histrionic and wildly inflammatory. However, Canada could have at least attempted to introduce a note of realism and objectivity into the discussions instead of simply sniffing in disapproval and staying away. I think Canada ought to be able to discuss any subject even with mortal enemies, and we’re lucky enough to have very, very few of those in any case.

  4. Juan T. permalink
    February 26, 2010 4:27 pm

    Can we be certain that this statement really reflects the Harper government’s plans? The Tories have be notorious poor at various PR-related things and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was another similar flub.

    I mean, you did say that actions are more than words. These seem like just that: words.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      February 27, 2010 11:17 am

      The Tories may be bad at some aspects of PR, but my impression has been that they’re actually quite good at staying “on message” – in fact, too good by half, since repeating scripted talking points is no substitute for engaging in meaningful dialogue. In any case, Kent qualified rather than retracted his statements when he spoke later to the Globe and Mail, and he didn’t even seem to qualify them all that much.

      I wouldn’t necessarily take this as a promise that Canada will become involved if Israel is attacked. It’s more like a hint in that direction and a strong affirmation of solidarity. Just words, as you say – but taken at anything like face value, they indicate that the government’s attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken another step away from balance and towards a simplistic, one-sided perspective. If this is a misunderstanding, someone from Harper’s cabinet should move quickly to set matters straight.

  5. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    February 26, 2010 3:49 pm

    Ugh, reading of Harper’s unbending and unquestioning stance towards Israel is sickening. While I now expect these views and statements from U.S. presidents, seeing a Canadian leader be so vehemently pro-Israel is surprising and, as Eric said, very damaging to the country’s reputation in the area. What’s more, I would genuinely fear for the safety of Canadians worldwide and Canadian national security were Canada to not only view Israel’s enemies as it’s own, but to also to act as such. The last thing Canada needs is more unfriendly states within the Middle East, putting soldiers in Afghanistan at risk and the country more vulnerable to outside attack.

    I also find the question of “why” extremely fascinating. This is not a Canada specific question, either. Why is to the U.S. so staunchly in support of the country as well? And to what end? I know the arguments about strong pro-Israeli lobbies, moneyed interests, etc. but I still can’t wrap my head around it. I know that no simple answer for this complex situation exists, but I still want someone to just tell me why.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      February 27, 2010 11:27 am

      I agree that it’s just foolish for Canada to align itself with Israel to the point of alienating Islamic countries over the issue. As for the “why”, see my reply to Eric for my best guess with respect to the Harper government, and I think a lot of the same factors are at play in America. At least, my impression is that religiosity and a simplistic, with-us-or-against-us view of the world are sufficiently prevalent in American public life to have established a kind of political orthodoxy favouring Israel. And of course, lobby groups like the formidable AIPAC don’t hurt either.

  6. eric permalink
    February 25, 2010 8:07 am

    I dont know where these ideas come from. The desire to be cosy with the US, some kind of bending over for an Israeli lobby in Canada? This is another example of Canada’s (really, the current govt’s) skewed view on the mid-east – its very likely, that by so adamantly getting behind Israel, we are alienating other countries in the region for no particular reason and to no particular benefit. There is no real indication of a foreign policy position aside from the ambiguous “we’re against terrorists”, which adds no direction to our mid-east operations. To suggest that Canada would jump into war on Israel’s side with the voracity as if we were attacked ourselves is ridiculous and damaging to our reputation in the area.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      February 25, 2010 11:29 am

      Yes, you’ve put your finger on the obvious question – why do Harper and his lackeys do this? Most of us can only speculate. I don’t think it has too much to do with alignment with the US, since if anything we’ve been more adamantly in Israel’s camp than have the Americans of late. There definitely is a significant pro-Israel lobby in Canada, and I’m sure they exert influence – although of course there are also anti-Israel groups.

      For what it’s worth, though, I suspect the most important factors are less tangible. Harper seems like someone who sees the world very much in black and white, so it’s not surprising that he would pick a side and back it to the hilt rather than taking a more balanced view. He probably also finds it easy to conflate Israel’s enemies with Canada’s under a label like “radical Islam” or “terrorists attacking democracy”. Finally, he’s an evangelical Christian, and in the Bible the Israelites are very much the Good Guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if this leads to a certain instinctive sympathy with the modern country of Israel.

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