10:58 Should be starting any minute…
11:04: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the first prime minister to address the Israeli Knesset, making this a solemn occasion deserving of careful and respectful coverage. So I figure I’ll start out with a drinking game. Every time Harper says Canada is Israel’s best friend, I’ll take a slug. Fortunately, there are still some old bottles of Beau’s beer hanging around the bureau dating from colleague Nick Taylor-Vaisey’s efforts at bribing us to join the Canadian Association of Journalists. Or something.
11:42: We’re in the midst of introductory speeches in Hebrew.
11:45: Someone in the gallery is upset. Wish I had simultaneous translation.
11:50: Harper’s up.
“Canada and Israel are the greatest of friends.” That didn’t take long.
11:51: Ugh. That tastes like sour horse sweat. Must have gone bad. Serves me right for leaving Nick’s beer untouched for eight months. I do have the bottle of vodka the Polish embassy sent over for a Christmas/ Please-write-nice-things-about-us present. Wish I didn’t take the Israelis’ wine home.
11:52: Harper speaks of business and military ties. Praises Israeli-made drones that saved Canadian lives in Afghanistan.
11:53: I think there’s a bottle of whiskey from the Iraqi ambassador around here somewhere…
11:54: Is trying to buy positive coverage with alcohol unethical? Yes. Shame on all of you.
11:55: I wonder why the Iranians never send me anything?
“Canada supports Israel fundamentally because it is right to do so.”
Harper says Canada has consistently defended what is right, even at great cost.
11:56: I’m now double-fisting vodka and Lady Grey tea. That’s gotta be first. I should call a news conference.
11:57: Harper says Canada’s support for Israel is not just moral but is in Canada’s strategic interest.
11:58: SH: History shows that those who start off hating Israel end up hating everyone who is not like them.
12:00 SH: We stand up for Israel or the retreat from our values in the world will begin.
12:01: SH: We hope the Palestinians and their leaders will chose to be a sovereign and democratic and peaceful state.
Michael Petrou: That choice isn’t only the Palestinians’ to make.
MP: Israel is not exclusively a Jewish state. Some twenty per cent of the population are Muslim or Christian. I can’t blame Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for his stand on this. Ethnic minorities the world over resent when their homeland is defined in a way that excludes them.
12:06: Looks like a handful of people (Israeli Arab lawmakers?) have walked out on Harper after some angry shouting.
12:09: SH is condemning what he describes as the new anti-Semitism: cloaking hatred of Jews in obsessive criticism of Israel.
12:10: SH: I believe a Palestinian state will come when states that bankroll terror choose peace.
12:11: Moving on to Iran now.
12:12: SH: Canada will judge negotiations with Iran on results, not words. Canada’s own sanctions will remain fully in place.
12:13: SH: “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.”
Backing up a bit, the argument, frequently made by Stephen Harper and other Conservatives, that this government’s support for Israel is mostly driven by morality rather than politics, that it is in fact politically harmful, strikes me as disingenuous. I have no doubt that Stephen Harper’s affection for Israel is genuine. I also don’t doubt that he believes Canada’s backing of Israel is proper and right, even that it serves Canada’s interests to stand with an ally that is a primary target of Islamist extremists. But the Conservatives also campaign on their support for Israel. And even the size of the delegation Stephen Harper brought with him from Canada suggests he sees the benefit of underlining his support for Israel to a domestic audience.
Looking at the speech in its entirety, what strikes me now is the complete absence of any sort of criticism of Israel. Stephen Harper did say that allies and friends do not agree with each other all the time — which is usually the sort of diplomatic precursor to criticism. None came. Nothing, most notably, about Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank. Does Harper believe this is legitimate? If so, why? If not, surely he has amassed enough political capital on Israel that he could afford to say so.
On reflection, Harper said little even about the prospects of a Palestinian state or how one might be achieved. He said he hopes the Palestinians and their leadership “will choose a viable, democratic, Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish state of Israel,” and that when “Palestinians make peace with Israel,” Canada will be right behind Israel in welcoming it as a new member of the United Nations. Sadly, he added, we have yet to reach that point.
This implies that the only thing standing between the Palestinians and statehood is for their leadership to end its war with Israel. There is, in fact, no war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been clear that he desires a Palestinian state that is at peace with its Israeli neighbour. One must also give him credit for the sharp reduction in terror attacks against Israel from the West Bank territory he controls since his presidency began in 2005. The birth of a viable Palestinian state is not simply awaiting a Palestinian decision to embrace peace. It depends on also on difficult Israeli decisions that would allow such a state to come into being. Stephen Harper misrepresented reality in order to put responsibility for the absence of a Palestinian state on the Palestinians themselves. Israel bears responsibility as well.
Also on the subject of a Palestinian state, Harper said one of the things that will make it come is when “regimes that bankroll terrorism realise that the path to peace is accommodation, not violence.”
This statement deserves probing. He was talking about Iran. Iran was once a major funder and arms-supplier of Hamas, a Palestinian militant group responsible for numerous suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel. Hamas has talked about a longterm “truce” with Israel, but I think it’s entirely legitimate that Israel does not view Hamas as a partner with which it can negotiate toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Hamas runs Gaza, which is a shame for everyone living there, as well as Israelis within rocket range. But it is suppressed in the West Bank — in no small part because of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation. Still, Hamas’s presence is an obstacle to negotiating a viable two-state solution — not an insurmountable one, but a problem. Israel doesn’t want hand over territory if it will shortly be used by Hamas to send rockets against Ben Gurion Airport.
But here’s the catch. Iran no longer funds and arms Hamas. Hamas broke with Iran over the latter’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Hamas now receives much of its support from Qatar — with whom Canada has “very good” relations. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird stopped by for a visit two years ago.
Iran, in other words, is not responsible for lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. I suspect Harper knows this. But here, again, I think he was trying to affirm support for a Palestinian state, while simultaneously blaming anyone but Israel for the fact that one doesn’t exist.
That’s all I’m going to say here. I’m going out for tea. Nick’s rotten beer has given me a headache.