Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to Israel, he saw (and was seen) and he conquered. The fanfare which accompanied his arrival was only exceeded, and rightly so, by that which accompanied his departure.
In one of the most powerful affirmations of friendship ever delivered by a foreign leader in support of the Jewish state, he vowed that “through fire and water” Canada would stand with Israel because, fundamentally, “it is right to do so.”
Much was written in anticipation of, during, and in the aftermath of Harper’s trip, most of which lavished effusive praise on the Canadian leader.
In virtually each case, however, there has been no insight into what it is that makes Harper so unique. Why is it that during his time in office he has made Canada Israel’s “best friend”? To explain this phenomenon requires a brief recap of events leading up to his trip.
Exactly one week prior to Harper’s arrival in Israel, Ottawa published updated policy directives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which essentially negated virtually every position of the Israeli government on “territorial” issues: “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 [the Golan Heights, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip] ... The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel’s obligations as an occupying power ...
Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
Most significantly, by stating that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to all areas located across the Green Line – a major point of contention and a position that is tenuous at best under international law – Canada effectively declared Israeli settlements to be illegal.
The document also lends support to the formation of a “contiguous” Palestinian state, which presupposes the dissection of Israel; for the Arab Peace Initiative, which Israel vehemently opposes; and for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue,” language which is, parenthetically, generally reserved for Saudi diplomats.
On the surface, Canada’s new directives are openly hostile to Israel and indistinguishable from those of the European Union, with whose positions the Jewish state has had multiple and very public diplomatic dust-ups.
Why, then, was there no outcry from the Israeli government, akin to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s furious reaction when, on the eve of his trip to Washington in May 2011, the Obama administration undercut him by stating that the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be the 1967 borders? More paradoxically, why would Harper, merely 10 days after the publication of said directives, stand before the Knesset and deliver such an impassioned “pro-Israel” speech and, for that matter, without anyone thereafter accusing him of double standards, hypocrisy or insincerity? The answer lies in the one irrefragable lesson which Harper has long comprehended and from which he refuses to be deflected by any historical obfuscation or diplomatic double- talk; namely, that at the heart of the conflict is the Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state.
Simply stated, Harper is unique because he understands this full well and, crucially, in stark contrast to others acts with fortitude in accordance with the dictates of this overriding, essential truth.
Yes, Harper admires the Jewish people’s ability after 2,000 years of persecution to create a thriving island of values, freedom and growth in a regional sea of chaos and, yes, he believes the Jewish People has an inherent right to political self-determination in its ancient homeland.
But unlike the Europeans – as well as US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry – Harper understands that neither settlements, borders or refugees, nor any other so-called “final status” issues, lie at the root of the matter. Any and all of these issues could be resolved through sincere negotiations if only Israel were to have a partner for peace whose starting-point was the expressed recognition of the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Harper is special because, amid the prevailing anti-Israel bias, he has been able to separate fact from fiction and correctly contextualize the conflict.
He understands that Palestinian rejection of any Jewish state within any borders is the primordial issue to which all others are of only secondary significance.
This perspective accounts for his steadfast refusal to single out Israel for condemnation. He understands that berating the Jewish state has no bearing on the fact that the Palestinians reject the principle of “two states for two peoples,” and thus in no way serves to bring the parties closer to any resolution (in fact, doing so has the opposite effect by encouraging Palestinian intransigence). It is also why Harper calls supporting Israel a “moral obligation,” the alternative being to side with those who reject the Jewish state outright.
This incisiveness becomes a revelation when compared to the American and European obsession with borders and settlements as the ostensible primary “obstacles to peace”; an illusory focus which has poisoned relations between Jerusalem and Washington/Brussels.
Criticism of settlements by the Obama administration and European technocrats elicits a vehement Israeli response because it is understood to be vacuous and completely misdirected attack on the Jewish state, grounded either in a longstanding and unflinchingly blind “Arabist” Foreign Office/State Department culture or a totally “quicksand” comprehension of the true foundations of the persisting conflict.
In this vein, and by contradistinction, Canada’s opposition to settlements garnered no angry response from Netanyahu precisely because the prime minister (and the nation) does not consider such views, emanating from Ottawa, to constitute a fundamental challenge to the Jewish state, or to the Canada-Israel relationship, but rather as an actual example of sincere and constructive disagreement between friends.
What Israel must therefore learn from Stephen Harper is the crucial need to impart – over and over again until it seeps into the minds of those roaming the corridors of power in the White House, Brussels and beyond – that the true source of the local conflict is Arab, including Palestinian, rejectionism and, hence, revanchism.
While Netanyahu has in the past commendably defended Israel and historical truth (most recently in a joint press conference with Harper after a Canadian journalist raised the issue of settlement construction, to which Netanyahu responded with a 10-minute lecture on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing, for example, the 1929 Hebron pogrom and the fact that attacks on Israelis were commonplace between 1948 and 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under the respective control of Jordan and Egypt), his message has nevertheless become diluted through a fruitless engagement in negotiations which focus on terms and issues which do not properly characterize the inherent and central conflict to be resolved.
It is the obsessive and messianic focus on secondary issues at the expense of the conflict’s primary issue – the Palestinian refusal to recognize the homeland of the Jewish People – that accounts for the two-decade-long failure known as the peace process. And until Israel demands that this central issue be addressed, the peace process will remain a backwards process that will never result in peace; a reality that informs Stephen Harper’s unique outlook and which accounts for his being so special in the eyes and minds of Israelis.
Charles Bybelezer, who made aliya from Canada in August 2012, is a correspondent for i24News, a recently launched international news network base in Israel.
Henri Bybelezer, PhD in History from Cambridge University, is a Montreal- based lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions.