Monday, May 16, 2011

Canadian Relations With Israel

The Canadian Exception

Geography, history, economics and necessity have made the U.S. and Canada allies, though Americans tend to take their good neighbor to the north for granted. Israel, six-thousand miles away, has every reason not to follow the American example.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, Canada's friendship toward Israel has stood in contradistinction to the treatment Jerusalem has gotten from its fair-weather European allies and a fickle Obama administration. In May 2nd elections, to Israelis' delight, Harper won a resounding electoral and ideological victory giving him a clear majority in parliament.

None of this was preordained. The trajectory of Israel's relations with Canada essentially mirrored those it has had with Western Europe – starting out warm and turning increasingly frosty. In 1947 Canada's Minister for External Affairs Lester Pearson, an internationalist liberal supported the partition of Palestine. The Zionists were grateful; the Arabs utterly rejected the two-state solution, went to war and lost.

During the 1956 Sinai Campaign France and Britain were allied with Israel as Canada sought to placate both London and a fuming Eisenhower administration. Afterwards, Ottawa's adhered to a pro-Israel stance through the 1967 Six Day War wobbling only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Pierre Trudeau in power (1968-1979 and again from 1980-1984). The 1973 Arab oil embargo, PLO airliner hijackings and terrorist outrages, such as the massacre of twenty-one Israeli schoolchildren at Ma'alot on May 15, 1974, swayed Europe and Canada against Israel.

In 1975, Trudeau postponed a UN conference slated to take place in Canada with Yasir Arafat's participation only under pressure from the Jewish community. As soon as Canada's Jewish leadership abandoned the issue, Trudeau's inhibitions about having his diplomats sit with the PLO disappeared along with any interest in opposing the Arab economic boycott of Israel.

Talk about moving Canada's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was shelved as a self-deluded Canadian government, press and intellectual elite emphatically embraced an Arab line that negated Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria. Canada, like Europe, said settlements not unremitting Arab rejectionism was the obstacle to peace.

No surprise then that Ottawa showed no understanding of Israel's predicament leading up to and during the 1982 Lebanon War. By the mid-1980s, under Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, Canada had formalized its pro-Arab course. Clark called for a Palestinian "homeland" long before Arafat even feigned recognition of Israel's right to exist and pressed Washington to exploit the political environment during the 1991 Gulf War to force Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. At the start of the first intifada (1987–1993) Clark ignored Palestinian-on-Palestinian bloodletting that would ultimately take over 1,100 Arab lives, overlooked Palestinian brutality against Jews that would claim 421 Israeli victims, and leveled his criticism primarily on Israel. Similarly, Canadian media coverage portrayed Israel as a Goliath striking down purportedly "unarmed" Palestinian protestors. Even the Canadian labor movement turned against Israel.

Only in the wake of the September 11, 2001 Islamist terror attacks and Arafat's unleashing of the second intifada that would take hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli lives did Canada begin, under Paul Martin (2003 – 2006), to slow its anti-Israel drift as exemplified by Ottawa's abstention on a UN vote against Israel's life-saving security barrier.

With Harper's election in 2006 the drift was halted and reversed. The new Canadian government became the first to cut ties with Palestinian Authority after radical Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. In July 2006, Harper courageously stood with Israel against Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War. In 2009 Ottawa led the way in opposing a repeat performance of the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Durban conference of 2001 as well as other Arab efforts to perversely exploit the UN Human Rights Council as a battering ram against Israel.

What explains this Canadian exceptionalism? Canadian political analysts insist that Harper's attitude toward the Jewish state is a matter of personal conviction and shared, moreover, by other party leaders including Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney. They see Israel for what it is: an unwavering island of democracy and a bastion of Western values in a perilous unstable region. The reconstituted Conservative party Harper now leads came into existence only in 2003 and does not carry the anti-Israel baggage of its predecessor.

Though it continues to import petroleum, Canada is actually the fifth largest energy producer in the world; third in gas; seventh in oil. Such energy independence lessens the penchant toward moral and diplomatic myopia suffered by Europe.

Harper's principled stance is by no means politically risk-free. Of the main national newspapers that delve into global affairs the National Post is editorially sympathetic to Israel though it relies on occasionally tendentious wire services for its Middle East coverage. The Globe & Mail which endorsed Harper is somewhat less supportive and its Israel bureau chief Patrick Martin has been a strident anti-Israel critic. And while Canadians are not particularly interested in foreign affairs, Harper's support for Israel hardly panders to popular opinion. A recent BBC World Service poll found that fifty-two percent of Canadians still view Israel unfavorably. During the Second Lebanon War only 45 percent agreed with Harper's pro-Israel position. In Quebec, historically less friendly to Jews and Israel, there has been even greater dissatisfaction with the government's stand.

Still, in Harper's core constituency, which includes Christian supporters of Israel, his willingness to go against the grain is valued. Moreover, increasing numbers of Jews in key Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver electoral "ridings" where they are sufficiently concentrated to hold sway have abandoned Liberal for Conservative candidates. Even the famously pro-Israel Liberal MP Irwin Cutler barely won reelection in a heavily Jewish district against his pro-Israel Conservative opponent. Unlike their co-religionists to the south, Canada's 350,000 Jews (out of a 34 million population) see themselves as part of a multicultural mosaic not a melting pot; they tend to be traditionally oriented with a large proportion having actually visited Israel. And they are far less prone to anchor their "Jewish identity" in criticizing Israeli policies.

Exactly fifty years ago, in May 1961, David Ben-Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel to make an official visit to Canada. Which brings us to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned visit to Washington later this month. Would it not be menschlich if he made it a point to stopover in Ottawa to personally express Israel's gratitude to Harper and the Canadian electorate for their refreshingly sincere and unqualified friendship?

-- May 2, 2011

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