Jerusalem, Israel – “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with Israel.”
These words prompted yet another standing ovation for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his first speech to the Israeli Knesset Monday afternoon.
Harper’s speech reaffirmed Canada’s unyielding support for Israel. He spoke of the longtime economic and military ties between the two nations, but emphasized “the personal ties of friendship and kinship.”
“It is right to support Israel, because, after generations of persecution, the Jewish people deserve their own homeland and deserve to live safely and peacefully in that homeland.
“Let me repeat that: Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so.”
Harper’s speech, delivered in English and French, drew multiple ovations from the packed gallery, which included more than 250 Canadian members of the PM’s delegation.
It also prompted heckling by two Israeli Arab members of the Knesset. Ahmed Tibi and Taleb Abu Arrar ultimately walked out of the assembly when Harper questioned the wisdom of those who would condemn Israel as an apartheid state.
“Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that,” Harper said of the apartheid label, which he considers a prime example of “the new anti-Semitism.”
“A state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish, as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history, that is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism.
“It is nothing short of sickening.”
It was difficult to determine whether the subsequent wave of applause reflected approval of Harper’s remarks or relief that the hecklers had left the assembly.
The speech in the Knesset was the highlight of the second day of Harper’s first trip to Israel. He and his wife Laureen started the day in Bethlehem, where they visited the Church of the Nativity.
He then met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where he announced a new $66-million aid program to advance the peace process, promote security and deliver humanitarian assistance.
But the focus of the visit was and is to reinforce Canada’s ties with Israel.
Harper acknowledged that Canada has made mistakes in the past, such as refusing to allow Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to enter the country in the 1930s.
“But, as a country, at the turning points of history, Canada has consistently chosen, often to our great cost, to stand with others who oppose injustice and to confront the dark forces of the world,” he said.
“It is, thus, a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular.”
Harper said that while it might be easier to “go along to get along,” and follow the trend in international diplomacy to single out Israel for criticism, any failure by Canada to stand up for our shared values with Israel would ultimately erode these values.
“And so, either we stand up for our values and our interests here in Israel, stand up for the existence of a free, democratic and distinctively Jewish state, or the retreat of our values and our interests in the world will begin.
“Ladies and gentlemen, just as we refuse to retreat from our values, so we must also uphold the duty to advance them.”
Harper reiterated Canada’s support for a Palestinian state, but said that it must be a “viable, democratic Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish State of Israel.”
He also spoke of his government’s scepticism of the interim nuclear accord with Iran, and its commitment to continued sanctions against Iran.
“Canada will evaluate the success of this approach not on the merits of its words, but on the implementation and verification of its promised actions.
“We truly hope that it is possible to walk the Iranian Government back from taking the irreversible step of manufacturing nuclear weapons.
“But, for now, Canada’s own sanctions will remain fully in place.
“And should our hopes not be realized, should the present agreement prove ephemeral, Canada will be a strong voice for renewed sanctions.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also seized the opportunity to attack the interim agreement with Iran. He compared the Iranian nuclear program to a train with multiple stops, each one more deadly, and said that the interim agreement allows Iran to improve and upgrade its nuclear engine.
“In a final agreement, the international community must derail the Iranian nuclear train. Iran must not be left with the ability to build nuclear weapons.”
The event at the Knesset opened with remarks by Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, who spoke of the importance of “P2P” connections: People to people, parliament to parliament and partner to partner.
“We need a partner for peace,” he said. “Today, the Palestinian Authority is not a partner for peace – as long as the media incite against Israel and as long as they teach hatred in their schools.”
Labor MK Isaac Herzog, leader of the official opposition, said that because Canada and Israel have such a close relationship, it was appropriate to talk about “our internal quarrels.”
He said that contrary to the remarks of Edelstein and Netanyahu, the Palestinians “are not a danger to Israel,” and said that Harper’s visit to the Middle East could be an “historic opportunity” to re-energize the peace process.