Canada - Israel's best friend

Beyond the evident differences, the two countries share many similar interests and ideals.

Netanyahu with Canadian PM Harper 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu with Canadian PM Harper 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the face of things, it would be difficult to find two countries as different from each other as Canada and Israel. Canada is the second largest country in the world and enjoys a wealth of natural resources, while Israel is short on both resources and space. Canada has been living peacefully with its neighbors and has had friendly relations with most of the international community, while Israel is under threats from many fronts. In Canada, minorities have integrated into a quilt of multiculturalism.
In Israel, sectoral tensions are only increasing. Canadians are notorious for their politeness, Israelis for their directness. Look past the differences, though, and you will find two countries with much in common and many shared interests.
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In a recent address at a conference held in Ottawa on combating anti-Semitism, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an unprecedented pledge of support to Israel.
“As I said on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, Israel appeared as a light in a world emerging from deep darkness. Against all odds, that light has not been extinguished. It burns bright, upheld by the universal principles of all civilized nations – freedom, democracy and justice,” said Harper, promising to continue defending Israel and combat anti-Semitism in the international arena, despite any difficulties it might cause Canada.
These difficulties are not hypothetical. Several weeks before making the statement, Canada lost out on a seat on the UN Security Council, largely due to the bloc voting of the 57-country Organization of the Islamic Conference, which voted in favor of Portugal because of Harper’s record of supporting Israel. Harper even suffered harsh criticism from his opposition for coming to Israel’s defense during the Second Lebanon War.
Israel is aware of the sacrifices and has been forthcoming in expressing its appreciation.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has described Canada as one of Israel’s closest allies and expressed pride in the everstrengthening relationship.
“Canada has clearly shown that it is a real friend to Israel and the Jewish people. It has stood up for Israel even when it wasn’t necessarily to its benefit, and that is greatly appreciated,” said foreign press spokesman Mark Regev. “The prime minister considers Mr. Harper a personal friend, and everyone has noticed his international leadership in standing up for Israel and for what is right.
While other countries sometimes abstain or sit on the fence when it comes to Israeli issues in the international arena, Canada can be counted on to do what is right.”
However, the relationship goes beyond close government ties. The two countries enjoy a wide variety of shared interests and goals, and a new wave of joint projects and initiatives has led to the relationship growing ever closer.
“The prime minister’s remarks were very well received, not only in Israel but in Canada too,” said Paul Hunt, Canada’s ambassador, in one of the first interviews he gave since his arrival in October. He said that Harper’s statement reflected a fundamental approach that has been in place since he took office in 2006. Hunt said the relationship between the governments was so strong that when he first presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres, Peres gave him Harper’s regards, having just completed a phone conversation with him.
“Canada has always embraced countries that share similar values, including democracy and human rights. I know that for Canada the fact that Israel is a strong democracy in this region makes it an important partner and a country that deserves friendship and support,” said Hunt. “It would also be fair to say that Israel has a place in the hearts and minds of many Canadians, including religious, cultural and historic reasons. Canadians have closely followed events in Israel since it was created and maintain a keen interest in developments here in the country.”
He also spoke of the strong people-to-people connections that existed. “When you tell people here that you are from Canada, it opens doors,” he said. Hunt talked about daily encounters with Israelis who, when finding out he was the Canadian ambassador, showed genuine warmth and affection toward him and the Canadian people.
“In my job, I love that. It makes me feel good about Canada, and it makes me feel good about where I am because it tells me there is a special relationship that is both personal and beyond personal.”
In the short time that he’s been here, Hunt has already overseen a number of state visits.
Over the last several months, there has been a constant flow of high-level Canadian delegations.
Cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, premiers and ministers of the provinces have all visited with one primary focus: creating partnerships.
Hunt said that he had recently attended a conference in Toronto dedicated to innovation in science and technology. “The event came as a result of a conversation between the two prime ministers during the first of two high-level meetings. The second will take place in Israel in the spring. The idea was for both countries to develop an innovation frame building on the science and technology base that the countries share, with a focus on commercialization of all the innovative ideas that come out of all the research and development that takes place. Israel has a great track record in this regard, and so does Canada. The sense is that a more strategic, purposeful push will really catapult both countries forward in important ways.”
He said that the relations were already in place on the academic and governmental levels, but that the commerce and business ties were the weaker links.
Hunt also said that talks were in the works toward upgrading bilateral trade relations.
While a free trade agreement has been in place since 1996 – Israel was the first country outside the Western Hemisphere with which Canada signed such an agreement – on a recent visit, Minister of International Trade Peter Van Loan announced that officials would start exploratory talks to significantly expand its application.
Hunt said that a good and stable political relationship enables trade and business to grow. “Business is business, and if people identify a good investment opportunity, they will likely act on it no matter what; but when you’ve got a really positive and dynamic political relationship, as we do, it offers support, encouragement and opportunity. It creates a constructive atmosphere,” he said.
For Alan Baker, a former ambassador to Canada and current president of the Israeli- Canadian Chamber of Commerce, business potential is huge but currently underutilized.
“Bilateral trade stands at roughly $1.3 billion a year, with a slightly growing trend in recent years, but business activity could be 10 times what it is. The problem is lack of visibility.
Canadians don’t know enough about Israel, and Israelis don’t know enough about Canada.
In the newspapers and on television in Canada, the coverage is inevitably about wars or terror; you don’t hear about Israeli capabilities in hi-tech or medicine or agriculture.
The tendency when thinking about doing business with Israel is wariness of instability.
They don’t know that the Israeli economy is completely disconnected from the security situation.”
Baker accused the Foreign Ministry of overlooking Canada in its effort to reach out to the US. “I think that if there is a Canadian prime minister who is so friendly toward Israel, more so than the president of the United States, who goes out on a limb to defend and support Israel, he should be given better recognition.
“Israel is an absurd situation whereby in the second largest country in the world, Israel has one economic attaché. This person can’t deal with economic relationships in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg and all the various other places. He doesn’t even have the budget to fly to Ottawa more than three or four times a year.”
Baker also blamed Canada for not being aggressive enough in its efforts to increase its economic clout. “They don’t exert themselves as a major economic power. If it wasn’t in the shadow of the United States, it would be one.”
According to Baker, the sectors with the most potential for growth are hi-tech, cleantech and biotech, as well as defense. All that is needed to reach that potential is more visibility.
“This is why I took it on myself to try to build up the chambers of commerce on both sides. When I was ambassador, I rebuilt the Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce so that it would be a self-funded, independent body that could assist the diplomatic efforts. When I got back, I saw that there was no Israel- Canada Chamber of Commerce either, so I joined together with some other people who are passionate about the cause and we reopened it after years where it was nonexistent,” said Baker. “Now we can hold events and host visits that will allow the two business communities to get to know each other.”
Baker expressed concern that the strong political ties may weaken if Conservative Party leader Harper is replaced by someone from the Liberal Party, but he was convinced that economic ties would remain strong. He said that financial and business matters depended more on the provinces than on the federal government and that the provinces are, by and large, unaffected by national foreign policy and will continue to act according to their constituents’ best interests, no matter who runs the show in Ottawa.
What Baker does consider a lingering concern is the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in Canadian universities. Similar to universities across the US and Western Europe, in Canada university campuses tend to be hot spots for anti-Israel activism. “Israel Apartheid Week” was first marked in the University of Toronto before spreading to other campuses, and during his term as ambassador Baker saw two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu, denied the right to speak at Canadian universities.
“When it started during my first year in Canada, the instructions I got from the Foreign Ministry were to ignore it so as not to lend it credence. But it disturbed me, so I asked to be invited to speak so I could counter the accusations,” said Baker. “I did this and went back every year.”
If campuses pose the biggest challenges, they may also hold the key to the solution.
While the arts faculties are busy slamming Israel’s policies, in the science labs and research centers, academics are seeking to develop and strengthen cooperation.
RAMI KLEINMAN has been in Canada for 10 years, serving as an emissary for the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University. He brought with him a new approach to fundraising and philanthropy. “We say that Israel doesn’t need sympathy, it needs partners,” he said. “We are no longer in a position that we need to elicit pity. We say that Israel is a strong and successful country. Our approach is to focus attention on successes, not needs.”
Kleinman said that this approach has achieved success beyond his hopes. Listing a long series of joint projects and partnerships, primarily between Canadian provinces and Israeli research and development institutions, he drives home the message that success breeds success and that presenting Israel’s achievements in its areas of strength, primarily medicine, sciences and technology, could introduce a new way for people to view it.
“We need to explain why we are relevant, not why we are right. We’ll never convince everyone that the tank is right and the boy throwing a rock is wrong; it’s pointless to invest in it. What we need to focus on is being relevant. When we do, we see results. If they didn’t understand that Israel had something to offer, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said.
What Kleinman and others like him are doing for their institutions, Consul-General Amir Gissin in Toronto does for the country as a whole. Specializing in public diplomacy, he has his finger on the pulse of Canadian public opinion, and it is his job to make sure that the Israel they know is one they can relate to and see value in.
When asked to assess whether the current relationship is driven by the government or by the public, Gissin said it was a matter of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.
“In my opinion, Stephen Harper’s support for Israel isn’t because it pays off politically or because the polls tell him he should. I think his support is ideological, not driven by populist sentiments. In the same way, the Canadian public’s feelings toward Israel are not affected by what the federal government does. We have figures from surveys that we’ve done that determine clearly that friendship, interest and closeness to Israel are on the rise independently of the government’s actions,” he said.
“Canadians understand that Israel has more to offer than many other countries.
They understand that in order to ensure their own economic growth, they need the best information and that the richest wealth of knowledge exists in Israel. We have a product, and in Canada people want to buy it.
That is a big reason why in Canada things look different than in many other countries when it comes to Israel. The idea is to create interest and affection, and then the task of explaining yourself is a lot easier.”
Toronto was the launching pad for one of the most ambitions public diplomacy efforts.
Led by Gissin, the Foreign Ministry embarked on the Rebrand Israel campaign, aiming for it to be a pilot for similar action in other cities and countries.
Gissin explained that rebranding was a shift away from the traditional hasbara practiced for decades.
“I always claimed that because of the focus on the conflict, we constantly found ourselves occupied with tactics instead of developing new strategies,” he said. “Constantly putting out fires might bring quiet for a while, but as soon as there is a crisis, all the achievements are erased. Rebranding works on a strategic level; by actively presenting a different focal point, you expand the debate, and things get put in their proper perspective.”
Gissin said that the most impressive achievement of the campaign was to be found in a pair of surveys done at the start of the pilot and after it. “The surveys showed that despite the fact that there was an unplanned war in the Middle East, Operation Cast Lead, support remained the same. The overall numbers measuring support for Israel’s policies and the perceptions of Israel in general didn’t drop as you might expect in the wake of a war. We found a way to deal with hasbara’s failures simply by being ourselves and letting the world see.”
He said the same method can work in other places. “Israel has something to offer everybody, and that should be the constant state of mind. All we have to do is identify how to become relevant, and it will succeed elsewhere.”