OTTAWA – For one night, at least, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will set aside the stresses of the Senate expenses scandal and his sagging poll numbers to bask in the adulation of some of his most ardent supporters: Canada’s Jewish community.
Harper will be the star attraction Sunday at the annual Negev dinner in Toronto, a gala fundraiser to acknowledge his unabashed friendship and political support of Israel — a noticeable tilt in foreign policy that has sowed resentment in Canada’s Arab and Muslim communities.
The National Post reported Friday that Harper will announce at the dinner he finally intends to make his maiden voyage to Israel, a country whose hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gushes openly with public affection for the friend he simply likes to call “Stephen.”
Sunday night’s tribute will also be about money. On this evening, the love for Harper will be in measurable in cold hard cash — the Jewish National Fund’s Canadian chapter plans to announce the tally of a fundraising effort to build a bird sanctuary in Israel to be named after the prime minister himself.
Josh Cooper, the chief executive of the JNF’s Canada branch, wouldn’t say how much money the organization raised, but did describe it as their most successful fundraising effort ever.
“I’m very excited. I’m glad to say this will be our best campaign in our 65-year history,” Cooper said in an interview.
Neither Cooper nor the prime minister’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, would say what convinced the prime minister to lend his name to the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre.
It is a wetlands rehabilitation project that the Israeli government hopes to turn into a major tourist attraction — a surefire photo-op for Harper’s eventual trip to Israel.
The Israeli government’s website calls the Hula Valley a “place of miracles and wonders” where “heroic people working together with Mother Nature” have transformed it into “a place filled with green beauty.”
It is also one of the few places on the planet where the prime minister can claim political sanctuary from widespread global criticism that, on his watch, Canada has become a laggard on reducing greenhouse gases and a peddler of environmentally unfriendly Alberta oilsands crude.
“The project will bring jobs to the region. It will be an epicentre for environmentalists, for birders from all over the world, to learn and study birds together in Israel,” Cooper said.
Harper’s well-documented love of animals made it a natural fit for him to be associated with the Hula Valley initiative, he added, noting there’s no cause for concern in the fact that the sanctuary is to be in northern Israel, not far from the Golan Heights.
“JNF has owned this land, and been in control of this land for decades. It’s a great area. Israel’s a beautiful country, and we have no concerns about the safety of the project,” he said when asked about the sanctuary’s proximity to the chunk of land Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, now occupied by a UN observer force.
“We wanted to honour our prime minister because of his steadfast support of the state of Israel.”
Harper announced that support in the summer of 2006, literally on the fly, when he told reporters travelling on his first transatlantic flight that the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah militants was a “measured” response.
Since then, as critics wailed that he had compromised Canada’s standing as an “honest broker” in the Middle East, the Harper government has aligned itself more firmly with Israel in deeds as well as words.
In particular, Canada was one of only nine countries to vote at the United Nations against the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition. One of the others was the United States.
But one issue — Iran — has created a political cleavage between Jerusalem and Washington as distinct as the passage carved by Moses through the Red Sea.
On Iran, Canada stands firmly on the Israeli side, separate from allies such as the U.S. and Britain.
This past week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he was openly skeptical of the U.S.-brokered deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, backing the Netanyahu’s hardline against it.
Even thick-skinned veterans of the Israeli government find themselves hard pressed to explain why Harper is so supportive.
In a recent interview, a senior Israeli government official on a visit to Ottawa paused and gave a bearish shrug when asked for his perspective of the Canadian prime minister.
“We wish to have some more leaders like Prime Minister Harper in more countries,” said the top-level official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“It’s a unique phenomenon.”