The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Harper enters Middle East crucible, and provides fuel to his critics

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OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first full day in the crucible of the Middle East was marked by two extremes — one loud and proud, the other deafeningly silent.

On one hand, there was passionate support of Israel paired with the unequivocal moral condemnation of the Jewish state's enemies; on the other, stony silence on the intractable issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory.

Some moderate Jews, Palestinians and other analysts believe those two extremes have converged at one key effect: emboldening hardliners in the Israeli government, which could make life more difficult for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's current push for peace.

"I don't know that Canada has such enormous influence that his speech will make a lasting impact. But ultimately it's just giving more support and adding to the motivation of many Israeli politicians to continue looking at the settlements as not really being an issue," said Tyler Levitan, spokesman for the group, Independent Jewish Voices — Canada.

"Palestinian human rights activists support universal human rights for all people, so we are not singling out Israel. It is Harper, who refuses to challenge Israel's systematic human rights abuses, who is making an exception of Israel by exempting it from criticism."

Harper explained Monday in a historic speech to the Israeli parliament why he supports the Jewish state so strongly: he sees it a matter of global security and moral conviction.

Israel's enemies are the enemies of Canada and its allies, he told Israeli lawmakers. And, as other of his cabinet ministers have done before, he evoked the Holocaust and said those who oppose the Jewish state are part of an insidious new brand of modern anti-Semitism.

Harper began the day in the West Bank, where he announced $66 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority — and abruptly shut down reporters who tried to get him to condemn Israeli settlements there.

Canada's written foreign policy expresses such condemnation, but it has proven impossible to get Harper, his senior spokesman or Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to utter it verbally.

Harper's message to journalists Monday was blunt and clear: stop trying, because I won't criticize Israel on this trip.

Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian official, said he has no objection with Canada supporting Israel, but said Harper's government has "really deviated from the long-standing Canadian policy and has also deviated from the international consensus," which opposes Israeli settlements.

"At the time when Mr. Kerry is really trying his absolute, absolute best and utmost best to resolve the conflict, is when Mr. Harper is supporting some extreme elements within the Israeli political system," Zomlot said in an interview with CBC television.

Monday represented a "lost opportunity" by Harper to show some true international statesmanship on the Middle East peace process, said Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations and a senior foreign policy adviser to former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"I'm disappointed that an opportunity was not taken to deliver a message to the Israelis that the world is expecting progress on this issue, and the world is judging Israel by the progress it makes or doesn't make," said Heinbecker.

"If he was a true friend he would have spoken more directly to what needs to be done to a two-state solution."

Harper should have said more to support Kerry's peace initiative, but by staying silent on the settlements, he offered "some succour to those hardline Israelis who don't want to give up any land in the West Bank," said Heinbecker.

"He casts this in moral terms, but what's moral about taking people's land and bulldozing their housing and making it difficult for them to get an education? Where's the morality in that? Where's the principle?"

Roland Paris, the director of the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies, said Harper was right to condemn anti-Semitism but was way off-base when he said it would be "weak and wrong" to criticize Israel.

He said Canada should be willing to say publicly that "new Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories are unhelpful and should be stopped. The United States says this. So do the Europeans. Are their positions 'weak and wrong'?"

Fen Hampson, director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said that at the end of the day, nothing Harper said or did represented a fundamental change in policy.

"Harper's speech was masterful in the sense that it played to the sensitivities of his Israeli hosts, reinforced Canada's tilt towards Israel, but it was not a 180 turn in terms of Canadian policies, which in terms of our fundamental position on the so-called occupied territories of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem have not changed."

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