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Harper steers G8 to Israel-friendlier stance

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TEL AVIV -- The new Canadian government of Stephen Harper is emerging as one of the friendliest countries to Israel in the Western world.

This new direction became apparent in the last G8 summit, which ended on Saturday in Deauville, France. When discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Britain and France introduced a draft resolution supporting U.S. President Barack Obama's speeches of May 26 and May 28, but singling out the future borders between Israel and Palestine. In his speeches, Obama said that these borders should be based on the 1967 ceasefire lines "with mutually agreed swaps."

For a resolution to be binding by the G8 it has to be accepted unanimously.

After an urgent telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Harper objected to the British-French draft resolution. He argued that Obama's speeches included other elements, such as the Jewishness of Israel; that the future Palestinian state should be non-militarized and that Hamas cannot be a partner for peace, unless it accepts the Quartet's three conditions -- renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept all previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

If the issue of the borders is to be included, then all the other elements in Mr. Obama's speech should be also included, he argued.

After long deliberations, Harper's position was accepted. The final communique endorsed "Obama's vision" and called on both parties to resume their negotiations.

Netanyahu phoned Harper to thank him for his success.

A few days later came another Canadian friendly gesture. One year after the bloody incident with peace activists on board of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, Turkish activists are planning a larger naval convoy to Gaza, this time including Canadian activists. Israel considers this convoy "totally unnecessary." Food and medicines are being supplied to Gaza by Israel on a daily basis. With the opening of the Egyptian crossing to Rafah, there is no more blockade.

In a statement on the weekend, Foreign Minister John Baird urged Canadian activists to use "established channels" to bring aid to Gaza. Baird warned against participation in the Turkish flotilla, calling it a "provocation."

The "Arab Spring" occupied much of the G8 conference. All agreed that there was an impasse in Libya and that the demonstrators in Syria did not seem to achieve tangible results. Thus, after a long tête-à-tête between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, an interesting, unofficial deal was reached; Russia appears to have agreed to "abandon" Libya's Muammar Ghadafi, in return for a pledge that there would be Western military intervention in Syria.

It is not difficult to explain the logic behind such a deal. Since the 1958 Egyptian-Syrian Union and especially since Gen. Hafez Assad assumed the Syrian presidency in 1970, the Soviet Union, and now Russia, saw in Syria (not Egypt) the main base for its activities in the "Fertile Crescent" -- Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

Moscow supplied Syria with arms, trained its officers, designed its military doctrine and acquired naval facilities in Syrian ports in the Mediterranean, to counter the American Sixth Fleet. The Soviet Union undertook a vast "socialist indoctrination" in Syrian universities and military academies and, through its vast military mission in Damascus, established strong co-operation with Syrian intelligence. This intelligence effort never stopped, although there were periods when it slowed down.

For Sarkozy, the deal with Medvedev closed a sad chapter. When in 2008 he undertook his effort in Syria, Sarkozy sincerely believed that he could achieve with Bashar Assad what his predecessors -- Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac -- had failed to achieve.

With the behind-the-scene support of Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, Sarkozy designated his chef de cabinet, Claude Gueant, as his front man for Syria. Gueant served as France's ambassador to Damascus, speaks fluent Arabic and knows Assad and many of his ministers.

Sarkozy's main ambition was to stabilize Lebanon at the expense of Hezbollah. Sarkozy also sought to compete with Turkey in seeking peace between Syria and Israel. In this particular case, he was encouraged by Israel's president Shimon Peres, who preferred French mediation over Turkish.

After three years of efforts, Sarkozy finally accepted the fact that Assad was not responding to his overtures and that he still prefered the Iranian and Turkish alliance over the West.

Because of this failure, Sarkozy has been the most extreme in seeking western action -- including military -- against Bashar Assad.

After his tête-à-tête with Medvedev, however, France now understands that Syria is "out of bounds" for a western Libya-like military involvement in the "Syrian spring" in Damascus.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2011 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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