Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper's Mideast odyssey

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unwavering support for Israel over the years has been criticized by those who say Canada has abandoned its reputation as an honest broker in world affairs, weakening its ability to reconcile competing interests. In fact, he has not broken new ground or diverged from tradition. Mr. Harper's language may be more passionate than that of some of his predecessors, but the message is still fundamentally the same.

In his speech Monday to Israel's Knesset, or parliament, for example, the prime minister said defending Israel was "a moral imperative."

"Canada and Israel are the greatest of friends and the most natural of allies," he said. All true.

He also said, however, Canada supports a "just and secure future for the Palestinian people" within a sovereign state.

These are familiar themes in Canadian foreign policy that date back to the formation of the Jewish state in 1948.

Canada was one of just 33 countries that voted in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution that aimed to create separate Jewish and Palestinian states. Several Arab states invaded Israel in response, leading to a series of wars that left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Canada formally recognized Israel in 1948 and granted full legal recognition when it was admitted to the UN a year later.

Since then, Canadians have always stood behind Israel, while urging both Jews and Palestinians to find a way to peace.

Some pundits have said Mr. Harper should have criticized Israel for expanding its settlements in the West Bank in violation of UN resolutions, but Canada has already expressed its opposition to the settlements, which are seen as a barrier to peace.

It's not known what Mr. Harper may have said in private with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but lecturing the Jewish state in public during a state visit would not have accomplished anything.

Foreign-policy critics say Canada has abandoned the country's traditional "honest broker" approach to world conflict in favour of "conviction politics" or "principled foreign policy," as the Conservatives describe it.

This semantic debate ignores the fact the world has changed considerably since 2001, the year Canada joined the war against terrorism. Very few people said Canada would lose its "honest-broker" reputation by invading Afghanistan. And although Canada didn't join the coalition of the willing in Iraq, it would be disingenuous to say Canadians were "honest brokers" in that conflict.

The country earned its fair-dealer reputation during the bygone era of peacekeeping, when the doctrine of mutually assured destruction kept everyone honest, but Ottawa has taken firm sides on numerous issues since then under both Liberal and Conservative governments.

Mr. Harper's position on Iran may arguably be too strong at the moment, but it hasn't hurt Canada's reputation.

The prime minister went to Israel to expand trade and build the bonds of friendship with an old ally. He also furthered the peace dialogue with Palestinian leaders and others in the region, warmly received wherever he went.

It was as Canadian as it gets.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2014 A6

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