Harper’s Israeli Rorschach Test

Stephen Harper stood in the Israeli Knesset today and, depending on whether you think Israel is an apartheid state or whether it is the shining bastion of democracy in a sea of oppression, either called all criticism of Israel anti-semitic, or signalled a new, brilliant bromance with Canada and the Jewish state.

Harper’s speech was, objectively, a fascinating one.

And the reaction to it could not have been more telling and diverse, as though he were holding up Rorschach blots to the country.

From the opening “shalom” to the closing “peace be upon Israel,” Harper laid clear a Middle East policy that has inspired as much fervent, mouth-foaming hatred as it has encouraged puppy-eyed fawning.

The speech initially limped in with a bit of rhetorical glad-handing, before getting into the long-settled free trade agreement between the two countries.  Then, the military stuff.  The first applause line came after Harper lauded the use of “Israeli-built reconnaissance equipment [that] saved the lives of Canadian soldiers.”

Harper then, in what has been cynically described as a call-out to the loyally Conservative Jews back home, underlined Canada’s strong and sizeable Jewish population as a bond that ties the two countries together.

Here’s where the first foreshadowing of Harper’s crux in this speech:

“[Canadian Jews] are also immensely proud of what the people of Israel have accomplished here, of your courage in war, of your generosity in peace, and of the bloom that the desert has yielded, under your stewardship,” he told the Knesset.

Hit ’em with some of that self-aggrandizing charm, Steve.

“This is a very Canadian trait, to do something for no reason other than it is right even when no immediate reward for, or threat to, ourselves is evident.  On many occasions, Canadians have even gone so far as to bleed and die to defend the freedom of others in far-off lands.”

Harper then goes on to recognize a failure that not all Canadians are themselves aware of — Canada’s refusal to admit 900 Jewish refugees, fleeing Europe in the 1930s, a third of whom later died in the Holocaust.  Few Prime Ministers have been willing to admit that, and only the last few have even come close to apologizing.

After a bit of self-depreciation, he jumps back into Canada’s altruism.  But in a line that is quite typically Harper, he points out that support “is more than a moral imperative.  It is also of strategic importance, also a matter of our own, long-term interests.”

Dudley Do-Right meets John Galt.

But this is all old hat.  A minute later, Harper tears into the meat of what he’s after.

Israel’s great traits, he says, of democracy and freedom are under threat.  “And what threatens them?  Or, more precisely, what today threatens the societies that embrace such values and the progress they nurture?”

Need more time?

I’m sorry, the correct answer was: “Those who scorn modernity, who loathe the liberty of others, and who hold the differences of peoples and cultures in contempt.  Those who, often begin by hating the Jews, but, history shows us, end up hating anyone else who is not them.”

Let’s pause here and consider exactly how Harper differs on Israel from his most analogous predecessor, Jean Chretien.

The prevailing narrative is this: from the standpoint of the pro-Palestinian crowd, Canada was an ‘honest broker.’  From the friends of Israel, Canada was a foot-dragger who failed to act on every front.

Both are half true.  Neither are entirely wrong.

Almost the entirety of the belief that Canada was this ‘honest broker’ through the sometimes tumultuous 1990s stems from its role at the UN — where, on virtually every occasion, Canada merely abstained from voting on critic motions regarding Israel.  The only two prominent policy planks you can identify from Chretien’s tenure is his participation (alongside most of the Western leaders) at the Summit of Peacemakers, and his support for a Security Council motion mildly rapping Israel on the knuckles for cracking down on the Second Intifada.  (Which he later apologized for doing.)

He certainly did fail to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organizing.  That earned some high-pitched ire from the Israeli lobby, yet this can be somewhat justified in that Hamas appeared likely to usurp Fatah as the prime political vehicle of the time, its violent tendencies aside.  And power, of course, is the great moderator.  So chalk that one up to Chretien’s wait-and-see approach.  Suffice it to say this is still a matter of some contention, but it’s hard to imagine that, had Chretien stayed on, he wouldn’t have come around and given Hamas a similar designation.

So, all-in-all, in a decade of Liberal government, Canada didn’t have much of a policy at all.  In the context, ‘honest broker’ really meant Ottawa sitting out most discussions and becoming involved only when they needed a diplomatic referee (see: virtually never.)

Martin and Dion, for their part, essentially dragged the Liberal Party alongside Harper’s policies, based both on their support of the Conservatives’ platform and their silence in relation to it.

So the bleating over this death of ‘balance’ is really a meaningless objection.  Balance, in the previous context, meant general sidelining.

Those critics, too, paint Harper’s policies as unbalanced.  That’s not entirely unfair — there’s little doubt that Harper is a better friend to the Israelis than to the Palestinians.  But once you strip away the useless shadowpuppetry of the United Nations, Harper’s positions blur a bit more.

Harper, for example, is a strong and repeated supporter of a two-state solution, like his predecessors.  But his rhetoric was much more precise and pointed than the previous holders of our highest office.  Harper did signal, though, that he wasn’t entirely myopic in his position when he first came into office — in 2007, he pledged $300 million to the Palestinian Authority over 5 years.  While they haven’t renewed that funding, they have continued pumping money into PA, including $66 million in business funding announced today.

Harper, too, has not changed Canada’s long-held criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of East Jerusalem.  It continues, too, to oppose new settlements in the occupied territories, which has actually faced criticism from within Israel.  But, as Harper puts it, “No state is beyond legitimate questioning or criticism.”

Harper re-iterated his support for an independent Palestinian state in his speech, telling the Israeli politicians: “when Palestinians make peace with Israel, Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations – it will be the first.  Sadly, we have yet to reach that point.  But, when that day comes, and come it must, I can tell you that Israel may be the first to welcome a sovereign Palestinian state, but Canada will be right behind you.”

But Harper clips along: Canada’s support for Israel means three things.

One, Ottawa won’t put up with states questioning Israel’s right to exist; two, Israel should put its elbows up at the UN; three, Israel should not be singled out for criticism internationally.

All of those things are fascinating.

The first prong is actually quite unnerving — while Canada should, of course, not put up with any foreign state that advocates the demolition of Israel, Harper has snidely decided that it’s not just foreign governments that he’s after.  As he notes later on in the speech: “People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.”

As I reported this month — Canada is looking to criminalize advocacy for ending the Israeli state within Canada.  That could, theoretically, be used against campus pro-Palestinian groups, as well as several unions that have supported divestment sanctions against Israel.  Here’s where some justified criticism of Harper’s speech fits in.

The second tenet of Harper’s three points is also interesting, in that the Harper Government has been loathed to even show up at the UN, let alone use its playground for actual diplomatic affairs.  That, though, has often centred around the flagrant anti-Israeli rhetoric and fun-and-games by states like Iran and North Korea.  This could, perhaps, be Canada signalling the start of a push to use the UN for real work, rather than an international playpen.  Maybe not.

And the third is really quite something.  Harper is, in effect, saying that to hold Israel to a higher standard in the Middle East and chide it publicly is a mis-use of time and a sign of political fallibility.

Now, some would call that Harper excusing Israel’s bad behavior.  That, of course, would be wrong.  This government’s foreign policy, at least since John Baird took over the portfolio, has been about lobbying friends and admonishing enemies.  In other words: just because Harper does not proclaim his concerns with Israeli policy from the rooftops doesn’t meant his message isn’t getting across.

It will be interesting to see if time will vindicate Harper’s approach, and to see whether Israel is more likely to take constructive criticism from its friends than critiques from the world at large.

It also underlines his continued hard line against Iran: something that requires a whole other column to talk about.

But now, we come to the crescendo.

Harper has already been heckled for decrying the verbiage of Israel as an “apartheid state,” and two lawmakers have stormed out.  He’s on shaky footing, and offers a caveat that comes too late:

“Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic.”

And then there’s the but.

“But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself while systematically ignoring – or excusing – the violence and oppression all around it?  What else can we call it when, Israel is routinely targeted at the United Nations, and when Israel remains the only country to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the regular sessions of its human rights council?”

Some have called this proof positive that Harper has forbid any criticism of Israel at all.  That, of course, is not true.

Harper’s tongue-wagging is a bit ham-fisted (I know that’s not kosher, sorry) but there is a sort of genuineness in Harper’s demand for consistency.

It is always telling how an advocate, in one breath, can condemn the Israeli occupation without in the next condemning the ‘freedom fighting’ from Hamas and other fighters in the Gaza Strip that only prolongs the violence.  (Of course, that can be extended: it’s also telling in hearing someone condemn the sporadic rocket attacks without decrying the disproportionate Israeli military retaliation, and vice versa.)

This is all to say: with so much history and allegiance peppering this debate, it’s hard to take Harper’s words at face value.  Every sentiment and statement comes with a wave of double-meaning and personal affiliation.

My read, say, is that Harper won’t take political grandstanding criticism of Israel unless the criticizer brackets their foreign policy with appropriately weighted criticism of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and virtually every other Middle Eastern state.  That’s an empty and impossible request, of course, but at least it’s logically consistent.

Another may read the same sentence as an outright rejection of criticism.  Others may call it just another form of moral relativism that Harper himself professes to despise.  Some could even consider it historically obtuse — ignoring that Israel’s human rights and democracy have thrived because of protections afforded by American military hardware, while its neighbours have descended into chaos because of destruction brought on by none other than Israel.

Maybe those are all right.  Maybe they’re all wrong.

And perhaps that was the great merit in Chretien’s approach — saying nothing meaning that nobody can ascribe meaning to your actions.

But now we have a Prime Minister, for good or bad, who is willing to stake out an issue.

And while you may find yourself encamped on the other side of this issue, there is still room to recognize that Harper’s positioning may, in the long run, be more mutually beneficial than sitting quietly on the bench.


Other columns by Justin Ling

Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street

It’s time for the Toronto Star to get back to journalism

Green With Fundraising Envy

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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