Politics & Policy

Stephen Harper & Israel

How the Canadian prime minister turned his country into Israel’s greatest friend and ally

When the State of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, one of its earliest acts was to cultivate an important friendship with the United States. It was a logical alliance, as the two countries both strongly believed in democracy and freedom. Various presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, would provide significant amounts of financial aid to Israel — and would strongly support the country’s right to defend itself.

That was then, and this is now. Barack Obama, during his time in the White House, has done the unthinkable and created icy relations between these two nations.

#ad#The Israeli government doesn’t trust the current president’s motives when it comes to dealing with the Middle East and Islamist terrorism. Mr. Obama’s long-held belief that “strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries” must worry Israel, a country in a volatile region with many adversaries. In addition, his puzzling new friendship with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani — who has called Israel “an occupier, a usurper government that does injustice to the people of the region” and that has “brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies” — will only add another layer of ice to this political deep freeze.

So is it any wonder that the U.S. has lost its status as Israel’s greatest friend and ally? I would suggest that this important designation is now firmly in the hands of, believe it or not, Canada.

No, I’m not kidding about this. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, a political conservative with a keen interest in international issues, has made Israel’s safety and security a high priority. Since taking power in February 2006, the Conservative government cut funding to Palestine after Hamas’s victory in the legislative elections in January of that year, supported Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as a “measured response,” and was one of nine countries to oppose upgrading the Palestinian Authority from “entity” to “nonmember state” in the United Nations in 2012, among other things.

All this has led to a historic shift in Jewish voting patterns in Canada. An Ipsos-Reid exit poll in the 2011 federal election noted that 52 percent of Canadian Jews supported Harper’s Conservatives. Contrast this number with Mitt Romney’s 29 percent support from American Jews during the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

Canadian observers have started to speculate about why Harper takes such a strong stand on Israel. Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote in the left-leaning Toronto Star that while “Stephen Harper is proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist,” Harper’s “Zionism seems to be rooted in his Christian faith.” On the subject of “Christian Zionism,” Marmur threw in this remark for good measure: “That tacit support of Israel by successive presidents of the United States and its Congress is an implied outgrowth of this political theology.” Meanwhile, Postmedia News deputy editor and parliamentary bureau chief Mark Kennedy pointed out that the PM’s late father, Joseph, whom Harper himself has described as his “greatest influence,” was “an accountant who became a member of the Presbyterian Church” and “was a student of military history who despised totalitarianism.” As a World War II army cadet — too young to see active service — he witnessed “how Hitler’s Nazis had obliterated 6 million Jews from the face of Europe. He understood why the Jews wanted a Jewish state called Israel to prosper and be safe. All this left a mark on Stephen Harper that carried through into his years as Canada’s prime minister. By then, he had adopted a fervent and unapologetic pro-Israel policy.”

The reasons are much simpler than that, however.

I’ve known Harper since 1996 (although we haven’t spoken much in recent years), and I’ve worked as one of his speechwriters. The first time we ever met face to face, we briefly discussed Israel’s relations with Canada and the United States. Although our family backgrounds are different — he’s a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and I’m a Jew who has been an agnostic since I was a teenager — we both supported Israel for similar reasons. As much as I hate to break it to the critics, it has virtually nothing to do with either religion or Harper’s father.

Harper strongly supports liberal-democratic societies. He believes in greater individual rights and freedoms. He promotes a nation’s right to defend its own borders. He values intellectual discourse and freedom of speech. He has a great passion for history. He condemns hatred and religious persecution of adherents of any faith. He is firmly committed to wiping out terrorism from the face of the Earth.

In short, Harper’s personal beliefs are remarkably similar to Israel’s beliefs. Hence, Harper’s position on Israel is based on principle. (Trust me: If it were based on politics, he would have immediately gone after the significant Arab and Muslim vote in Canada and solidified his political majority.)

While Canada is only a middle power, and obviously doesn’t have the political, economic, or military might of the U.S., many right-thinking Israelis have been greatly moved by Harper’s efforts and genuine concern.

During his visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan last month, Harper received what can be best described as a hero’s welcome. He received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, and he visited a Hula Valley bird sanctuary that will soon open the “Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre.” He even became the first Canadian prime minister to address the Knesset, where he deplored the rise of the “new anti-Semitism” and defended the “understanding that it is right to support Israel because, after generations of persecution, the Jewish people deserve their own homeland and deserve to live safely and peacefully in that homeland. Let me repeat that: Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so.”

To be sure, the left-wing Israeli media attempted to unravel parts of his trip. According to Gil Ronen, writing in Israel National News on January 25, Maariv columnist Kalman Libeskind described Harper’s presence in the Holy Land as being “like ‘a bone in the throat’ of Israel’s leftist press.” Ronen went on to write that the “leading nationwide television channel, Channel 2, devoted only a single minute of coverage to Harper’s address to the Knesset, and did so only in the second half of the evening news program,” and “Channel 10, the second nationwide commercial channel, completely blacked out the visit. Its news show did not cover the speech with even a single second of airtime.”

It didn’t work. A random search of the Israeli press revealed glowing praise from all corners:

• “Harper’s support for Israel is so robust it is considered one of, if not the, greatest foreign policy shifts in postwar Canadian history. And it has come at some considerable cost. But Harper’s love for Israel is so great it moves him to song.” — Ben Harris, Times of Israel, January 17

• “It was a four-day diplomatic high. The warm embrace given Harper – ‘Canada’s first Zionist prime minister,’ as he’s known in these parts (or, in the words of Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, ‘a Likudnik’) — was matched only by the big hug he gave Israel.” — Yossi Verter, Haaretz, January 24

• “In standing up tall for truth this way, Harper gives Israel hope that there are many decent people, including people in positions of power, who will not bow to demonization or to the Orwellian twisting of language and history that habitually pertains to the Jewish state these days. He gives us hope that the tide against Israel can be turned.” — David M. Weinberg, Israel Hayom, January 24

• “Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the number one Israelophile among world leaders. In truth, at least since George W. Bush has been gone, Harper has merited the title, pulling Canada from its previous (self-imagined) status as an ‘honest broker’ in an unabashedly pro-Israel direction.” — Neil Rogachevsky, Jerusalem Post, January 25

Will this new friendship and strategic alliance between Canada and Israel continue to blossom? Will U.S. relations with Israel start to thaw? Only time will tell.

But one thing seems rather clear. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Barack Obama will never receive the types of accolades that Stephen Harper did in Israel. Quite frankly, I don’t think the U.S. president wants them — and he has done absolutely nothing to deserve them.

— Michael Taube is a Washington Times columnist, a political pundit on radio and TV, and a former speechwriter for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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