O Canada

By Elliot Jager
Monday, May 16, 2011

In striking contrast to the treatment Jerusalem has been getting from its fair-weather European allies and a fickle Obama administration, there stands, of all countries, Canada. Why "of all countries"? Because none of this was preordained.

Until lately, Canada's relations with Israel have essentially followed the trajectory of those with Western Europe—that is, starting out warm and turning increasingly frosty. Since 2006, that has changed under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party. In the most recent elections on May 2, to the delight of Israelis, Harper won another resounding victory, giving him a clear majority in parliament.

A brief review of the history puts today's situation in perspective. In 1947, Lester Pearson, an internationalist liberal then serving as Canada's foreign minister, supported the UN partition plan for Palestine, for which the Zionists were grateful. In 1956, during the Sinai campaign that saw France and Britain allied with Israel, Canada sought to placate both London and a fuming Eisenhower administration.  Afterward, Ottawa adhered to a pro-Israel stance through the 1967 Six-Day war, wobbling only after the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Pierre Trudeau was in power. Tellingly, the 1973 Arab oil embargo, combined with PLO airliner hijackings and terrorist outrages including the 1974 massacre of 21 Israeli schoolchildren in Ma'alot, swayed both Europe and Canada against Israel.

In 1975, under pressure from the Jewish community, Trudeau postponed a UN conference slated to take place in Canada with Yasir Arafat's participation. But thereafter any such inhibitions disappeared, along with any interest in opposing the Arab economic boycott of Israel. Soon the Canadian government, press, and intellectual elite were embracing the Arab line that negated Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria. Again like Europe, Canada pronounced the obstacle to peace to be not unremitting Arab rejectionism but Jewish settlements.

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 pretended to recognize Israel's right to exist, and during the 1991 Gulf war pressed Washington to exploit the situation by forcing Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands. At the start of the first intifada (1987-1993), ignoring rampant Palestinian-on-Palestinian bloodletting, let alone the more than 400 Israeli Jewish victims of Palestinian brutality, Clark leveled his criticisms primarily at Jerusalem. Even the Canadian labor movement turned against the Jewish state.

Only in the wake of the September 11, 2001 Islamist terror attacks and Arafat's unleashing of the second intifada did Canada begin, under Paul Martin (2003-2006), to slow its anti-Israel drift. With Harper's election in 2006, the drift was not only halted but reversed. The new Canadian government became the first to cut ties with the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. In July 2006, Harper courageously stood with Israel against Hizballah in the second Lebanon war. In 2009, Ottawa led the way in opposing a repeat performance of the notoriously anti-Semitic Durban conference of 2001, as well as other Arab efforts to use the UN Human Rights Council as a battering ram against Israel.

What explains this exceptionalism? Canadian analysts agree that Harper's attitude toward the Jewish state is a matter of personal conviction—a conviction shared, moreover, by other party leaders like Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney. They see Israel for what it is: an island of democracy and a bastion of Western values in a perilously unstable region.

It is fortunate that the reconstituted Conservative party led by Harper came into existence only in 2003, and is thus free of its predecessor's anti-Israel baggage. It also helps that Canada is the fifth largest energy producer in the world. Though the country continues to import petroleum, its relative energy independence lessens the tendency toward Europe's moral and diplomatic myopia.

Which is not to say that Harper's principled stance is politically risk-free. Of the main national newspapers that delve into global affairs, the National Post is editorially the most sympathetic to Israel (though it also relies for its coverage on occasionally tendentious wire services). The Globe & Mail, which endorsed Harper, is somewhat less supportive, and its Israel bureau chief, Patrick Martin, has been a strident critic. Popular opinion, too, is far from completely on board with Harper. A recent BBC poll found as many as 52 percent of Canadians holding unfavorable views of Israel. In Quebec, historically less friendly to Jews and Israel, there has been even greater dissatisfaction with the government's stance.

But in Harper's core constituency, which includes Christian supporters of Israel, his willingness to go against the grain is valued. Moreover, Jews in key electoral districts in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver have increasingly abandoned Liberal for Conservative candidates. In the May 2 election, even Irwin Cotler, a famously pro-Israel Liberal MP from a heavily Jewish district, barely held on to his seat against a pro-Israel Conservative opponent. In general, and unlike their coreligionists to the south, Canada's 350,000 Jews see themselves as living not in a melting pot but in a sometimes tense multicultural mosaic, and are far less prone to anchor their "Jewish identity" in criticism of 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. For their refreshingly sincere and unqualified friendship today, Stephen Harper and the Canadian electorate deserve the gratitude not only of Israelis but also of the Jewish state's supporters, Jews and non-Jews, everywhere. 

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