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Canadian PM Harper pledges staunch support for Israel in historic Knesset speech

For the first time in history a Canadian Prime Minister has addressed the Israeli Knesset. On Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 Stephen Harper on his first trip to Israel became the first and only Canadian leader to have the honor of addressing Israel's parliament, it was also one of the most "overwhelmingly pro-Israel" speeches given by a foreign leader. Harper simply stated that "Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so." The Canadian leader has been a staunch supporter of Israel since first taking office in 2006, the Conservative and Evangelical Christian has also never been apologetic about Canada's position on Israel, making it Israel's best foreign ally, despite the international backlash Canada has faced. As a result Harper had the "red carpet rolled out" for him and was treated and greeted like a "rock star" during his first trip to the region, where he was accompanied for his four-day trip to Israel with a delegation of 300 including key cabinet ministers and 21 Canadian rabbis.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers an address to the Israeli Knesset, Jan. 20, 2014; Harper gave a staunchly pro-Israel speech during his first trip to Israel
צילום: עמוס בן גרשום, לע"מ

From the minute Harper stepped off the plane through his historic speech in the Knesset the Canadian Prime Minister was shown hospitality that was unparalleled by the reception the Israeli government has given to any other leader. Harper's Conservative government support for Israel is equally unprecedented setting the Canadian nation apart from the rest of the world. The mutual admiration and support was evident in both Harper's "hero's welcome" and reciprocal Knesset speech, that was both unprecedented in Harper being first Canadian leader to deliver a speech to the Knesset as much as the support for Israel in a world that has been increasingly critical of the small Jewish state; demonizing every other day the country and its policies.

Prime Minister Harper addressed the Knesset on Monday evening, Jan. 20 the second day of his trip during a special session. He was introduced by Opposition Leader Chaim Herzog of the Labor Party and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Harper was also presented with the keys of the Knesset where he was also being the first Canadian prime minister to be bestowed such an honor.

Harper's speech was enthusiastically received by a majority of the Knesset and all its Jewish members, with the exemption of two hecklers, Israeli Arab members of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi and Talab Abu-Arar. Both heckled Harper when he spoke out against the new anti-Semitism based on blaming Israel. MK Tibi had spent much of the session heckling Netanyahu, Herzog and Harper twice, before finally leaving the chamber. It was after the two MKs left, that the Knesset chamber exploded into applause and gave Harper a standing ovation for his words.

The Israeli Prime Minister's speech was in large part delivered in English despite only Hebrew and Arabic being the official languages, which Herzog chastised him for. Netanyahu told Harper; "You are a true friend in Israel. The people in Israel thank you for your steadfast support," and "courage to stand for the truth and courage to say it." The Israeli Prime Minister in speaking of Israel's security focused on the country's small size, making a comparison; "If I'm not mistaken, Yonge Street [in Toronto] is longer than the State of Israel, so we have no margin of error." Netanyahu concluded by again stating the two countries close friendship; "There are thousands of miles between the large Canada and the small - larger than life but physically small - Israel, but our nations are close. It's deep in our hearts. We will always see Canada as a close friend."

Herzog's speech focuses on differences, including according to the Jerusalem Post the 1961 Yaakov Toynbee and Arnold Herzog debate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Herzog also emphasized his position differing from Canada's on the peace talks; "Since you're part of the family, I won't hide our disagreements. I believe we need to separate ourselves from the Palestinians while protecting Israeli security."

Prime Minister Harper's speech given primarily in English and mixed with French phrases, was devoid of any criticism of Israel, including not commenting negatively about the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which almost every foreign leader coming to Israel likes to condemn and scold Israel for. Instead, Harper spoke out against the new anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism; being against the state of Israel and the widespread boycott movements. Harper speech placed him squarely on Israel's side, and meant to distinguish Canada greatly from their Southern neighbors, the United States, in their policy towards Israel, the peace process, and Iran's nuclear weapons and sanctions.

The Canadian Prime Minister addressed the fact the Canada often faces a backlash; criticism and exclusion for their unabashed support of Israel, but as Harper stated it is more important for Canada to stand up and do what is right, regardless of international opinion. As Harper explained; "It is a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular… support today for the Jewish state of Israel is more than a moral imperative. It is also of strategic importance, also a matter of our own long-term interests."

The Canadian Prime Minister spent much of his speech praising Israel as the "only" democratic country in the Middle East, giving examples; "Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These are not mere notions. They are the things that, over time and against all odds, have proven to be the only ground in which human rights, political stability, and economic prosperity, may flourish. These values are not proprietary; they do not belong to one nation or one people. Nor are they a finite resource; on the contrary, the wider they are spread, the stronger they grow…. And so, either we stand up for our values and our interests, here, in Israel, stand up for the existence of a free, democratic and distinctively Jewish state, or the retreat of our values and our interests in the world will begin."

Long outspoken about the Holocaust awareness, Harper spent much of his address linking the anti-Semitism of the past that led to the Holocaust with the anti-Israel and anti-Zionism, and boycott movements of today; "And so we have witnessed, in recent years, the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain…. But, in much of the Western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society. People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East."

Harper continued by highlighting the widespread boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that is being used by detractors to punish Israel; "As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students."

The Canadian Prime Minister left his greatest condemnation for those that call Israel an apartheid state; "Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that: A state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish, as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history, that is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening."

Harper only briefly spoke about the two-state solution and support of a Palestinian state; the Canadian Prime Minister has also been vocally supportive that Palestinians need to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state for a peace agreement to take hold. Harper stated; "Our commitment as Canadians to what is right, fair and just is a universal one. It applies no less to the Palestinian people, than it does to the people of Israel. Just as we unequivocally support Israel's right of self-defence, so too Canada has long-supported a just and secure future for the Palestinian people. A Palestinian state will come, and one thing that will make it come is when the regimes that bankroll terrorism realize that the path to peace is accommodation, not violence." Prior to speaking at the Knesset Harper met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where he pledged $66 million in aid to the Palestinian to "foster 'peace and stability'" and will be given out in a five-year period.

As the Geneva Interim Accord went into effect on Monday, Jan. 20 limiting Iran's nuclear weapon capability, Harper remained in complete agreement with Israeli PM Netanyahu's tough stance against Iran's nuclear weapons program. Harper expressed the Iran should not be allowed to gain nuclear capability promising to maintain its tough economic sanctions, and even adding sanctions should it deem necessary; "We truly hope that it is possible to walk the Iranian government back from taking the irreversible step of manufacturing nuclear weapons. But for now, Canada's own sanctions will remain fully in place. Should our hopes not be realized, should the present agreement prove ephemeral, Canada will be a strong voice in the world for renewed sanctions." The European Union and the United States have eased their sanctions towards Iran with the interim freeze taking effect.

Harper also spoke about Canada's Jewish community their bonds with Canada and to Israel; "to truly understand the special relationship between Israel and Canada, one must look beyond trade and institutions to the personal ties of friendship and kinship. Jews have been present in Canada for more than 250 years…. Today, there are nearly 350,000 Canadians who share with you their heritage and their faith. They are proud Canadians. But having met literally thousands of members of this community, I can tell you this: They are also immensely proud of what the people of Israel have accomplished here, of your courage in war, of your generosity in peace, and of the bloom that the desert has yielded, under your stewardship."

Canadian Prime Minister Harper concluded his speech declaring Canada's unwavering support of Israel; "Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you," which according to the CBC "echo[es] a prayer that is said on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year." After his speech the entire Knesset and Canadian delegation present erupted into applause and gave the Canadian leader the second standing ovation of his speech.

When Harper, his wife Laureen and a contingent of 300 arrived in Israel on Sunday, Jan. 19, the Canadian Prime Minister was greeted at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv to a "hero's welcome." Along with six cabinet ministers, six Members of Parliament, and 21 rabbis, the delegation included a Catholic priest, Jewish communal leaders, business leaders and lobbyists, and the newly appointed Canadian ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici. Harper and his wife Laureen were officially greeted by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.

After taking the scenic and tourist view to Jerusalem’s through its old city and Mount of Olives on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 19 Harper and his wife then met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sara at his office in Jerusalem. At the first meeting on Israeli soil, Prime Minister Netanyahu's welcoming remarks were filled with nothing but glowing words of praise for his Canadian counterpart. Netanyahu warmly called Harper "my good friend Stephen" and expressed at the start of his remarks to Harper "that you are a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people. I'm not just saying that - I mean it deeply from the bottom of my heart and I speak for all the people of Israel." Netanyahu also concluded his statement praising Harper and Canada's "friendship" with Israel; "And in standing up for the truth, your voice, Stephen, has been an indispensable one. So the people of Israel and I deeply appreciate your friendship and the friendship of the people of Canada to us."

Netanyahu then listed all the ways Harper and his government have supported and defended Israel's position on the world stage; "This world is often cynical and hypocritical, and you have shown great moral leadership. When it comes to fighting terrorism, you know that there cannot be any politically correct double talk, but only unequivocal condemnation and united international action." The Israeli Prime Minister commended Harper's response to anti-Semitism; "When it comes to anti-Semitism, you have stood up unabashedly at the side of Israel and the entire Jewish people, I think at the side of decency and fairness to everyone: Jews and non-Jews alike."

Netanyahu also mentioned Canada's support of Israel to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability; "And when it comes to Iran's repeated calls for Israel's annihilation and its unrelenting development of nuclear weapons - you and Canada have stood unflinchingly on the right side of history." He also praised the fact that Canada has taken Israel's side relating to the peace talks and process, primarily recognition and security; "And finally, when it comes to peace, you recognize that a genuine peace, a lasting peace, must be based on mutual recognition and sound security arrangements on the ground. I think in all this and in so many other things, you have shown courage, clarity and conviction."

Prime Minister Harper responded by thanking Israel and the Prime Minister "for that very warm welcome" and concluded his brief remarks by stating; "In the meantime, let me just say on behalf of all of us how delighted we are to be in Israel."

Continuing his trip, on his third day in Israel Tuesday, Jan. 21, Harper will have a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Then Canadian Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers that accompanied him will take part with him in a joint cabinet meeting with Netanyahu and members of the Israeli cabinet. According to Harper's Middle East Trip website; "John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism; Christian Paradis, Minister of International Development and Minister for La Francophonie; James Moore, Minister of Industry; Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade; and Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources," all joined the Prime Minister on the trip. At the joint cabinet meeting according to the Canadian Sun newspapers the focus will be on "economy, trade and investment," but will also delve into the peace talks and Iran's nuclear program and the interim accord.

The Canadian Prime Minister will then tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with Netanyahu and then visit the Kotel, Western Wall. Harper's third day in Israel will be capped off by a dinner held in his honor and hosted by Netanyahu and his wife Sara. On Harper's last day on in Israel Wednesday, Jan. 22 he will be honored by visiting the bird sanctuary that will bear his name and will receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University. The Canadian Prime Minister and his contingent then moves on to the second leg of his trip to Jordan for three days, where he will meet with "Hashemite King Abdullah II and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour," before returning back to Canada on Saturday, Jan. 25 with a relationship even more close and secure to Israel and its leadership more in sync than ever.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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