JERUSALEM — Through words and actions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper Harper showed on his visit to Israel last week that he “understands Jewish history and Jewish aspirations,” says prominent Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
The former cabinet minister said Harper’s trip accomplished three main things. First, he was able “to express Canada’s commitment to Israel as a matter of principle,” through his Knesset address. Second, the prime minister succeeded in “furthering bilateral relations… not only between governments, but also between peoples.” And, third, he succeeded in “warming the hearts of Israelis… that somebody would come here and not engage in the blame game.”
But despite his praise for the trip, Cotler told The CJN that it “might have resonated more back home” if Harper had broadened his delegation.
“It’s no problem bringing half a dozen ministers, 15 MPs,” but Harper should have considered “bringing, say, two MPs from the other parties,” said Cotler, who was in Israel during Harper’s visit but not part of the prime minister’s entourage.
Cotler stressed that Harper’s understanding of Israel and the Jewish People hasn’t come at Palestinian expense.
“He has spoken of the Palestinians’ right to an independent state,” Cotler said, noting that the prime minister gave an additional $66 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority when he met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
While Canadian reporters may have waited in vain for Harper to criticize Israel publicly about settlements in the West Bank, Cotler believes it was sufficient to mention privately “what was necessary for each of the parties to hear.”
Throughout the trip, the Canadian media hounded Harper over everything from the conservative makeup of the delegation and its large size to his “name-calling” in the Knesset when he invoked the term “anti-Semitism.”
They also highlighted the embarrassing actions of York Centre MP Mark Adler, who was recorded shouting a request to a Harper aide for a picture with the prime minister in front of the Kotel, calling it “the million-dollar shot” that was key to his 2015 re-election prospects.
International media were also predictably critical of Harper’s visit. Al Jazeera called his Knesset speech “baffling,” while The Economist’s blog seriously questioned “the rationale for the trip.”
Not all Israeli reaction was positive, either. A cartoon in the English edition of Ha’aretz showed Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dancing together while a dejected Abbas looks on.
Most notably, two Arab Knesset members repeatedly shouted out catcalls before storming out of Harper’s Knesset speech.
However, their main complaint – that MK Taleb Abu-Arar’s village had no water and electricity – was revealed to be a lie when an Israeli watchdog group shared images of his house flanked by an air conditioner, satellite TV dish, electricity lines and an electric meter.
But most Israelis now agree with Netanyahu’s characterization of Harper as a “rock star,” a reputation he secured by singing and playing piano at a state dinner hosted in his honour by Netanyahu.
As for Harper himself, his main impression of Israel has been the “real shortness of the distances” in the Jewish state compared to the “elaborate transportation” needed to get from one part of Canada to another.
It’s driven home Israel’s perilous position and “how truly existential any security threat of any kind really is.”
This “speaks to the extreme desirability of finding a peaceful resolution to some of the ongoing, unresolved issues,” Harper said. “I remain convinced there is such a solution.”
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, told The CJN that Harper’s visit will increase Canada’s standing not just in the eyes of Israelis, but also among Palestinians and Jordanians, as “a serious and committed player” in the Middle East.
On Jan. 22, Harper flew by helicopter to the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee, to inaugurate the Hula Valley Stephen J. Harper Bird Sanctuary and Education Centre, a Jewish National Fund project announced at the Negev Dinner in Toronto last month, where Harper was the evening’s honoree and where he announced his Israel visit.
Harper and his wife, Laureen, examined a model of the soon-to-be-built 4,000-square-metre, high-tech visitor centre.
Harper eagerly agreed to lend his name to the project, saying, “I value it obviously as a personal recognition. I also think it is a fantastic environmental project.”
In the 1950s, the Hula Valley was devastated ecologically when malaria-breeding swamps were cleared to create farmlands and several indigenous species were lost in the process. The agricultural land was always prone to flooding, however, and as ecological awareness grew in the 1990s, JNF led the way in restoring the native wetlands.
Each spring and fall, the area is temporarily home to close to 500 million birds migrating between Europe and Africa.
Ending his at-times controversial Israel trip with a project centred around ecology and the environment may have been a bid by Harper to broaden support for his activities here, or at least turn down the volume on the home-front criticism.
Following a ceremony in which he received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, Harper flew from Ben-Gurion Airport to Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II and Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour.
A spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s office told The CJN that “obviously, it’s been a very successful trip,” noting that Harper was the first Canadian prime minister in history to address the Knesset, and adding that the prime minister’s itinerary included both official duties and sites of personal significance, many of which are also important to Canada’s Jewish community.
In addition to meeting with Israeli and Palestinian dignitaries, Harper visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall and several Christian landmarks. A planned visit to the Dome of the Rock was cancelled for security reasons.