A day after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave what some journalists have hailed the best speech of his career at the Israeli Knesset, on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2013 Harper continued with his third of his four day Israel trip by first meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli opposition leader Chaim Herzog. Harper then attended a joint cabinet meeting with a team of some his most important economic ministers that accompanied him on the trip and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where they signed significant bilateral agreements between both countries. They after had a press conference which predominantly focused on the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and Canada's position on the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where Harper again departed from policies of international community towards Israel.
PM Harper began his day by meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose term ends this July. Harper was literally greeted at President Peres' office by a red carpet. Peres commended Canada's friendship to Israel and stated; "We have many friends, but nobody knows to speak [in a] friendly [way] the way you do. You really get the feeling of what friendship is, including your remarks yesterday in the parliament." According to CBC Harper replied that "Canada is the 'polar opposite of Israel' because it has 'much geography but very little history.'" Harper also had a meeting with Israeli opposition leader and Labor Party chairman Chaim Herzog.
The trip was not only ceremonial; both countries also conducted important business. At a joint cabinet meeting Harper and his economic ministers and Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers discussed some important economic, trade, security and social issues between the two nations, at the end coming to bilateral agreements. Harper was joined by the following cabinet ministers key members from foreign policy, economic and natural resources team; "Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Industry Minister James Moore, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Development Minister Christian Paradis and Trade Minister Ed Fast."
Netanyahu and Harper signed the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership Memorandum of Understanding which "reaffirms the close and special friendship that underpins the bilateral relationship, and lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries." In announcing the memorandum Harper again spotlighted the close bond between the two countries; "Canada and Israel enjoy a special friendship based on freedom, justice, democracy and the rule of law, underpinned by strong and growing people-to-people ties."
The memo according to a statement released by the Canadian Prime Minister's office "lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries." Continuing it reads; "The many areas in which we both want to deepen and broaden co-operation is truly a testament of the goodwill between our two nations," and concerns; "energy, security, international aid and development, innovation, and the promotion of human rights globally." The memo also states that two of the countries' universities will collaborate on a joint Ocean Studies Center in Eilat, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia are participating in this project.
Additionally both countries agreed to negotiate, update and "expand" the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) that originally went into effect in 1997; the negotiations will be held Feb. 3-9. A statement released by Harper expressed; "An expanded and modernized trade agreement with Israel will generate more jobs and economic growth at home and in Israel, while strengthening the close friendship that both countries enjoy."
Afterwards Both Netanyahu and Harper gave a joint press conference where Harper was asked about his opinion and position regarding the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Both leaders acknowledged that do not share the same feelings towards the settlements, with Netanyahu replying; "I guarantee you that's the case," admitting according to CTV News that Harper has expressed concern about additional settlement construction. However, Harper states that he refuses to publically criticize the settlements or Israeli policies. Harper told the press; "The answer of course is yes, and [I] have done so on many occasions. And leaders on both sides know what Canada's view is on this, which is, as I say, publicly available. I raised the issue of settlements privately. I am not here to single out Israel for criticism. There are more than enough to do that, they don't need me."
Continuing, Harper expressed frustration that Israel is always singled out for criticism everywhere in the world; "Leaders on both sides know what Canada's view is on this, which is, as I say, publicly available. ... I find it, you know, interesting -- let me just make it as an observation -- that, you know, yesterday in the Palestinian Authority, no one asked me there, no one asked me there to single out the Palestinian Authority for any criticism in terms of governance or human rights or anything else. I'm asked to single out Israel. When I'm in Israel, I'm asked to single out Israel; when I'm in the Palestinian Authority, I'm asked to single out Israel; and in half the other places around the world you ask me to single out Israel."
Harper explained that it not part of Canada's policies to criticize minorities, or the reasons for their policy decisions, firmly stating that Canada is for minority rights and "supports Israel"; "When someone is a small minority in the world, one goes out of one's way to embrace them, not single them out for criticism. That is a fundamental Canadian ethic, which is why many Canadians understand the statement I'm making."
Speaking critically of the European Union and United States for publicly ridiculing Israel relating to their settlement building policy, Harper explained that Canada takes a different more dignified method of disagreeing with other countries when their policies do not concern Canada. Harper explained; "That is why I think many Canadians understand the approach I am taking, which doesn't in any way prevent me from expressing, to the government of Israel, or to the government of the Palestinian Authority, the various issues on which we disagree, and on which our disagreements quite frankly are matters of public record. And which, by the way, expressing some of these differences, when they're not relevant to the vital interests of Canada on a day-to-day basis, it is frankly more productive to discuss with them in private settings where quite frankly, we're able to exercise a much more positive influence."
When asked about the peace talks Harper said; that he is "convinced there is a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that peace can be achieved." Harper did not elaborate or mix his own opinion about the peace negotiations. It was Netanyahu that commented more on the topic reiterating that he is committed to "the quest for [Israeli-Palestinian] peace a success." The Israeli Prime Minister answered for both his Canadian counterpart and himself that; "Canada and Israel want to see a Middle East that is more secure and more free."
The Israeli leader extensively discussed the settlements and main issue that is preventing peace. Netanyahu emphatically stated that the settlements are not the problem; "The settlement issue has to be resolved, and will be resolved in the context of peace negotiations. But it is not the core of the conflict. We know that, because this conflict raged for half a century before there was a single Israeli settlement, before there was a single Israeli soldier in Judea, Samaria, or Gaza." Netanyahu clarified that; "The core of the conflict is not settlements, the core of the conflict is not the territories, the core of the conflict is not the absence of a Palestinian state. The core of the conflict is the persistent refusal to reconcile to an independent nation-state of the Jewish people."
Prime Minister Harper's afternoon on Tuesday, Jan. 21 was filled with visits to some of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, first visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with Netanyahu and then visiting the Kotel, Western Wall the holiest site for Jews. Harper's third day was capped with a state dinner hosted by Netanyahu and his wife Sara, and the Canadian Prime Minister again gave a mini concert, which is fast becoming his hallmark. Harper then spent his last day in Israel on Wednesday, Jan. 22 playing tourist visiting by helicopter some important religious sites in the Galilee in Northern Israel. He was also feted by the Jewish National Fund and visited the bird sanctuary being named in his honor and then was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Tel Aviv University where the Canadian Prime Minister partook in a question and answer period.
- Stephen Harper Middle East Trip, Jan. 17-25, 2014
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.