Most of the world didn’t notice where Benjamin Netanyahu was standing when he announced he was cancelling his White House visit to handle the crisis over the bloodbath on the Gaza flotilla. But of course he was in Ottawa. Stephen Harper was standing beside him. The location was no accident. And it makes this week’s deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and the people on those boats a Canadian story, too.
This is the second time a Canada visit by Netanyahu was disrupted. A mob of demonstrating students and agitators forced the cancellation of his speech at Concordia University on Sept. 9, 2002. Netanyahu’s visit this week was his first to Canada since that fiasco. A lot has changed in the meantime.
The Economist chronicled some of the changes in an article last week, calling the two countries “unlikely allies.” It quoted Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hardline foreign minister: “It is hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days . . . No other country in the world has demonstrated such a full understanding of us.”
The Economist’s piece lists the elements of the Harper-Israel rapprochement, including his description of Israel’s behaviour during its 2006 war against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon as “measured,” and his government’s decision to halt core funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a move the U.S. has not matched. The magazine even mentioned Harper has cut funding to Kairos, the ecumenical Christian charity, “alleging that the group was anti-Semitic.” This led Alykhan Velshi, the communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, to exalt on Twitter: “The PM’s principled foreign policy getting noticed!”
Which is odd, because the last time somebody—the Toronto Star—asserted it was allegations of anti-Semitism that got Kairos its funding cut, his boss Kenney wrote to the Star to insist nothing could be further from the truth. “I did not accuse Kairos of being anti-Semitic,” he wrote. “A cost-sharing program with Kairos was not approved because it did not meet CIDA’s current priorities, such as increased food aid.”
Which is odd, because 12 days before he told the Star he didn’t call Kairos anti-Semitic, Kenney was in Jerusalem calling Kairos anti-Semitic. “We have implemented a zero tolerance approach to anti-Semitism,” he said. “What does this mean? We have defunded organizations, most recently like Kairos, who are taking a leadership role in the boycott.”
Back when Brian Mulroney was PM and national unity was the hot topic, ministers only had to travel as far as Montreal to say the opposite of what they were saying in Ottawa. These days double-talk requires a passport. One of the first reports of changes to the board of Rights and Democracy ran in the Jerusalem Post under the signature of Gerald Steinberg, a conservative Israeli analyst who’s a friend of the new Rights and Democracy chairman, Aurel Braun. Steinberg’s entire thesis was that the changes at the agency are part of a Harper government realignment of policy on the Middle East away from criticism of the Israeli government. It was, he said, all about the Middle East.
Steinberg’s column has not been rebutted by Rights and Democracy. But when layabouts like me started taking his argument at face value, we were harshly lectured by Braun and crew in the National Post, under the headline, “It’s not about the Middle East.” Perish the thought. “Conflict entrepreneurs in the Canadian and Middle East political trenches could not resist interfering,” Braun and his loyal board colleagues sniffed.
We are being given the runaround. The Harper government is advertising a much harder line on Israel to allies there and at home than it is willing to admit to the broader public. This is not quite what a principled foreign policy looks like. But then, the Harper government often advertises how much fight it has in it, while preferring to avoid fights.
The Rights and Democracy transformation was all plenty of fun until it received too much scrutiny in unusual places, like this column. That troubled agency has been awfully quiet lately. In mid-February its new rulers announced they were “acting to ensure financial transparency” by commissioning a financial audit by Samson Belair/Deloitte & Touche. Results were promised within two weeks. It will soon be four months, and the Deloitte audit is nowhere to be seen.
But I digress. On the crisis at hand, the Gaza flotilla violence that my colleague Michael Petrou chronicles elsewhere in this issue, there is a very robust debate, everywhere, about whether it makes a grain of sense to airlift commandos onto a ship in international waters as an effective expression of any country’s national sovereignty. Or whether the resulting lopsided carnage either reflects Israelis’ respect for human rights or advances their strategic interests. That debate is rampant, today, in the cafés and newspaper columns of Israel.
But there is silence from the government of Canada and a conspicuous silencing wherever the government of Canada can extend its influence. Ze’ev Sternhell, a leading authority on fascism, wrote in Ha’aretz that elements of the Netanyahu government have endorsed “a crude and multifaceted campaign . . . against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” In Israel, Sternhell survived a pipe-bomb attack by a crazed settler. In Canada, I think he’d have his funding cut off if he were a prominent member of an NGO.