After more than a decade of studied neutrality that Israel supporters felt benefited the Jewish state’s enemies, the Canadian government is displaying the shift in its Middle East policy that it long has talked about. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s declaration last week that Israel has a right to defend itself from attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah turned many heads in Canada, where pundits have grown used to “evenhandedness” from a government that under almost no circumstances would allow itself to take sides between Israel and the Arabs.
Harper described Israel’s response to recent Hamas and Hezbollah kidnappings and missile attacks as “measured,” reiterating that opinion even after eight members of a Canadian family were killed by Israeli fire while on vacation in Lebanon.
The Canadian branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused Harper of being “incredibly insensitive.”
Supporters of Israel welcome the change, but others decry what they see as Canada’s abandonment of its self-styled role as peacekeeper and “honest broker” in the region.
Political columnist John Ibbitson, writing Saturday in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, observed that a “major shift” in Canadian foreign policy had taken place, and he wasn’t happy about it.
“This militant new posture is causing anguish among some diplomats,” he wrote. “It will infuriate those who treasure Canada’s self-image of peacekeeper, mediator and friend to all.”
The shift was not as sudden as it may have appeared, said Marc Gold, national chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee, who traced it back to the regime of former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. While Canadian officials boasted of a new approach, it never went much further than a partial softening of Canada’s usual anti-Israel voting pattern.
“For some years now, the government has been quite clear that Canada would not accept one-sided treatment of Israel at the United Nations,” Gold said. Now, he added, Canadian Jews “very much appreciate and welcome Harper’s statements” upholding Israel’s right of self-defense.
Canada is taking a “principled position” rather than attempting to find a balanced position between aggressive terrorists on the one hand and the democratic state of Israel on the other, Gold said.
“This arises from an understanding that you can’t always stand in the middle of what Churchill once called ‘the fire and the firefighters.’ “
The National Council on Canada-Arab Relations asserted that Harper had “severely undermined” the country’s reputation as an honest broker, while the Canadian Arab Federation accused him of direct responsibility for the deaths of the eight Canadians in Lebanon.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bill Graham criticized Harper for moving the country away from its traditional non-aligned stance, and said Canada needed to preserve its peacekeeping reputation if it hoped to play a role in any future diplomatic solution.
“Canada has always had a proud tradition in the Middle East of being able to work with all parties in a way to establish the conditions for a long and lasting peace,” said Graham, a former foreign minister. “If we act in a way that interferes with our credibility in that respect, we will not be able to be an effective ally of Israel, or of Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East where we all have an extraordinary stake.”
But Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, countered that the best way for Canada to preserve its reputation as an honest broker is “to stand on principle.”
“Being an ‘honest broker’ doesn’t mean that you have to stay neutral,” Braun said. “Canada is not jeopardizing its position as an ‘honest broker’ because the truth is not somewhere in the middle between terror and those who fight terror. Sometimes you have to say that aggressors are wrong and that terror is unacceptable.”
The governments of Martin and Jean Chretien had enshrined neutrality as a sacred principle, said Joseph Ben-Ami, executive director of the Ottawa-based Institute for Canadian Values. Yet when necessary — such as during World War II and other conflicts — Canada had “never flinched from taking sides,” said Ben-Ami, a former policy analyst for Harper and other Conservatives.
During more than a decade of Liberal fence-straddling, Canadian officials met with Hezbollah representatives in Lebanon, equivocated for years before declaring Hezbollah a terrorist group, sent a representative to visit the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and took a “wait-and-see” attitude toward Hamas participation in Palestinian Authority elections, even after defining Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Now many observers see Canada aligning itself more clearly with the anti-terror axis of the United States, Australia and Britain, while distancing itself from the multilateral approach favored by Europe and the United Nations.
In articulating a new direction in Middle Eastern foreign policy, Harper has been expressing “his own personal view,” Ben-Ami observed. “This is not just the bureaucracy and policy people hammering out what Canada’s position will be. This is Stephen Harper, setting the agenda for the government on this particular issue.”
The former Martin government began to shift Canada’s traditional U.N. vote, but Martin himself “never laid out in clear fashion a principled Middle East policy,” columnist John Ivison wrote in the National Post Saturday.
In contrast, Ivison noted that Harper, who took office in February, was the first world leader to cut off aid to and contact with the P.A.’s Hamas-led government.
“In the linear mind of Mr. Harper, Israel has been attacked from land it had ceded back to the Palestinians,” Ivison wrote. “The Israelis have the right to defend themselves, as Canadians would have in similar circumstances. End of story. If this is the Harper Doctrine, it may take some getting used to after more than a decade of dithering.”