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Netanyahu, Harper bask in friendship

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Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Stephen Harper walk down the Hall of Honour shortly after the Israeli prime minister arrived in Ottawa on March 2. [Jason Ransom photo]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Canada last Friday for meetings with senior government officials and, as expected, Iran dominated the agenda.

At a March 2 press conference in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed his Israeli counterpart back to Canada. Netanyahu was last in the country in May 2010, but had to cut his trip short when the Israeli navy caused an international incident after boarding the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara and killing nine armed activists.

Harper expressed “pleasure” at Netanyahu’s return, and the Israeli prime minister said he had “warm feelings” for Canada and its support of his country on the world stage.

The two then spoke briefly to reporters about topics they planned to discuss over the weekend, and took questions.

Both men said they looked forward to talking about strengthening and expanding trade and economic relations, as well as collaborative initiatives in the fields of science and technology.

But Netanyahu said Iran and its “relentless pursuit” of nuclear weapons were foremost on his mind.

While acknowledging that the best way to resolve the Iranian question would be through peaceful means, Netanyahu said Tehran has historically proven that it is willing to exploit diplomatic channels to deceive and delay until it achieved its goals. He said this time around, it could use the same strategy to “get to the nuclear finish line by running out the clock.”

The international community shouldn’t let this happen, he said, adding that “all options should be left on the table” to prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear program.

He called on the nations of the world to clearly demand that Iran dismantle its underground nuclear facility in Qom, stop uranium enrichment and “get rid” of all its fissile material.

Netanyahu said that as Israel’s prime minister, it’s his duty to convince the world of the Iranian threat.

Asked whether Canada would support a unilateral Israeli pre-emptive military strike against Iran, Harper said that while he believes Tehran would be a danger to the world if it acquired nuclear weapons, Canada “would like to see a peaceful resolution to the situation.”

Regarding a hypothetical Israeli strike on Iran, Harper said that Canada would “of course recognize the right of Israel to defend itself as a sovereign Jewish state. But we support exploring every avenue to make sure a peaceful resolution is possible.”

Netanyahu expressed relief at being able to spend time in a country so strongly allied with his own.

“When we speak about the difficulties and troubles in [the Middle East], it is particularly encouraging to come to Canada, and later on to the U.S., and know that I stand among friends who share the same values and goals. You are such a friend. I look forward to our conversations,” he said.

Netanyahu said he has been speaking out on the dangers of Iranian plans to acquire nuclear weapons since his first tenure as the Israeli prime minister 15 years ago.

“As we see that the timeline is advancing and the distance to Iranian nuclear capability is decreasing, we understand that this could happen. The danger is not only to Israel,” he said.

Netanyahu said the world has to look only at what Iran does without nuclear weapons to understand that with them it would become even more menacing.

“It gives Hezbollah in Lebanon tens of thousands of rockets. It’s in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, it’s even in South America. It threatens to choke the world oil supply by closing the Strait of Hormuz,” he said. “They send their own children into minefields. They hang gays, stone women. Imagine what a regime like this would do if they had atomic weapons? I think it would be a… great danger to all the nations of the world.”

The two leaders continued to have private talks over the weekend.

On Sunday, Netanyahu gave a breakfast briefing to some 80 representatives of the Canadian Jewish community from organizations including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – which organized the event on behalf of the Israeli Embassy – B’nai Brith Canada, the Jewish National Fund and Israel Bonds. He then left for meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to again discuss the Iranian threat.

According to CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel, the breakfast gathering with Netanyahu, which was closed to media on Sunday, was “unusually informal” and conducted in a question-and-answer format.

“He spoke about Iran of course, emphasizing that the international community must not allow Iran to use talks to camouflage its ongoing drive to nuclear capacity. He also addressed issues of Israeli pluralism and democracy,” Fogel told The CJN.

Netanyahu also spoke about relations between his nation and Turkey, as well as Israel as an emerging energy power and the false “notion of Israel’s isolation within the international community,” Fogel said.

According to Fogel, the Jewish community leaders were “very happy” to connect with Netanyahu. “Overall, it was a very successful encounter,” he said, adding that Netanyahu extended an open and standing invitation to Harper to visit Israel, although there appear to be no immediate plans for such a trip.

Despite his staunch support of the Jewish state, Harper has yet to visit Israel.

Speaking before his meeting with Jewish leaders in Ottawa on Sunday, Netanyahu praised Obama’s earlier speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington and said he greatly appreciated the U.S. president’s statement on Israel’s right to defend itself against any threat.

Netanyahu highlighted Obama’s statements that Iran should not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons and that all options should remain on the table to prevent it from doing so. Netanyahu added that he expected to discuss these issues with Obama on Monday.

Immediately after his speech at the AIPAC conference, Obama met for 35 minutes with Israeli President Shimon Peres. The two discussed both Iran and the Palestinians. After the meeting, Peres spoke by phone with Netanyahu and updated him on the meeting with Obama.

“It was an excellent meeting with President Obama,” Peres said. “He reinforced the things he said in his speech and went into more detail. I left with the feeling that he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and he is very serious. Obama told me that Israel’s security is an American national security interest… He is sharply clear and is not playing politics.”

With files from Ha’aretz

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