Israel’s favourite world leader is finally visiting the Holy Land this week.
There’s no doubt that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be given a hero’s welcome. No head of state in recent memory has been such a staunch and vocal supporter of the Jewish state.
But there’s also no doubt Harper’s visit will reignite the longstanding debate about Canada’s diplomatic and political roles in the Middle East.
Critics of the Harper government and its close ties with the only democracy in the Middle East will lament the demise of Canada’s mythical role as an “honest broker” on the world stage.
The fact that Canada has not really played such a role in decades doesn’t seem to enter into the argument.
Nor does the idea that it’s not a tragedy for a country like Canada to worry less about being liked and more about standing up for what is right.
In fact, it’s a great step forward.
I should point out I have been invited to be part of the Canadian delegation for the official visit. I’ll be paying my own costs.
At the time of writing, the itinerary has not been set. But Israeli media are reporting Harper will also visit Jordan and the Palestinian Authority during his four-day visit.
As a first-time visitor, Harper will likely be struck by at least two aspects of Israel that are impossible to fathom without having been there.
One is the size of Israel and its proximity to its less than friendly neighbours. Driving from Jerusalem, you hit the borders with Lebanon and Syria in less than three hours. Travelling along the highly populated, narrow strip of land between the West Bank and the Mediterranean, you can see why returning to the pre-1967 borders in a U.S.-brokered peace deal with a hostile and reluctant partner would be a security nightmare.
But I’m also confident Harper will get a true taste of the life force that is Israel. With enemies all around, with children giving up their youth for military service and knowing more about death and loss than Canadian kids could ever imagine, Israelis have made the decision to live life with vibrancy and joie de vivre that belie its constant struggle for existence.
Harper first went on the record as a strong supporter of Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when he stated that Israel’s military action was a “measured response” to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.
In 2010, Harper said “the easiest thing to do is just simply to get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being even-handed, and to excuse oneself with the label of ‘honest broker,’” then dared to support Israel unconditionally.
The Harper government’s most recent – and controversial – stand with Israel was Foreign Minister John Baird’s announcement in November that Canada was “deeply skeptical” of a six-nation interim deal aimed at putting Iran’s nuclear program on hold. This perspective was in line with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pronouncement that the deal is an “historic mistake.”
The resulting outrage from the usual suspects over Canada’s position would have been humorous had it not been so pathetically misguided.
Why are otherwise intelligent people so eager to embrace a deal – any deal – with a regime that has shown absolutely no goodwill, integrity or progression since 1979? And, why is it considered “dangerous” for Canada to express doubt over an agreement that is based more on wishful thinking than any concrete evidence of change?
It’s important to note Canada’s vocal support of Israel and its democratic values does not mean blanket acceptance of every Israeli policy. Days after Canada stood with Israel to oppose a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations in December 2012, Harper criticized Israel’s unilateral plans for settlement expansion east of Jerusalem, saying it would hinder the peace process.
And Canada can challenge the incitement and duplicity of the Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership without abandoning the Palestinian people. Indeed, Canada continues to help the PA with humanitarian and economic aid, capacity-building and programs to improve law enforcement and justice.
As a true friend of Israel – supporting without question its existence and shared values, but willing to criticize the specifics of its policies – Canada can have a greater impact on the peace process than by standing on the sidelines, wringing its hands.
Welcome to Israel, Prime Minister.