PMs admit they differ on Israeli settlements but Harper refuses to criticize

JERUSALEM – Canada and Israel have differences of opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite their cosy relationship, both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.

For instance, the two countries part ways on the issue of Israeli settlements in disputed territory: “I guarantee you that’s the case,” Netanyahu told a news conference with Harper at his office in Jerusalem.

Harper, meantime, chided the media for expecting him to publicly single out Israel for criticism on its stance on the territories, saying he was asked to do so both while on the West Bank and in Israel.

“The one lesson I think we have learned is that when somebody is a minority, particularly a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them, not to single them out for criticism,” Harper said.

“That’s a fundamental Canadian ethic.”

Also Tuesday, Harper and Netanyahu signed a wide-ranging set of bilateral goals Tuesday and agreed to expand a free trade pact during their meeting in Jerusalem.

The two leaders said free trade negotiations would be held in Israel from Feb. 3-9 to expand and modernize the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement initially signed in on Jan. 1, 1997.

The aim of the new round of talks is to reduce technical barriers to trade, more quickly resolve market access irritants and create new opportunities for Canadian agriculture, agri-food, and fish and seafood companies in the Israeli market, Harper said.

“An expanded and modernized trade agreement with Israel will generate more jobs and economic growth at home and in Israel, while strengthening the close friendship that both countries enjoy.”

The two leaders also agreed Tuesday to a lengthy list of common interests to pursue under what’s called the Strategic Partnership memorandum of understanding.

The measures include growth in security and intelligence co-operation, enhanced defence and security relations, more business links and closer academic ties.

The memorandum the two leaders signed in Netanyahu’s office also covers innovation, energy, international aid and human rights.

The goal is to build on bilateral merchandise trade between the two countries, which the Prime Minister’s Office says was worth $1.41 billion in 2012.

Harper said in a statement that the memorandum “lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries.”

“The many areas in which we both want to deepen and broaden co-operation is truly a testament of the goodwill between our two nations,” he added.

That goodwill notwithstanding, the volatile realities of the Middle East refused to go away Tuesday. Harper’s scheduled visit to the Dome of the Rock, a hallowed Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount in Old Jerusalem, was cancelled due to security concerns.

“Planning and logistics required on a trip like this can be complicated, and unfortunately we weren’t able to make it work in a manner that satisfied the security organizations involved,” said Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald.

Six federal cabinet ministers joined Harper at Tuesday’s meeting with Netanyahu: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Industry Minister James Moore, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Development Minister Christian Paradis and Trade Minister Ed Fast.

Following the meeting, Harper again touched on Canada’s full-throated support of Israel.

“I wouldn’t want to say there is no price for Canada in the Arab world (for supporting Israel),” but differing opinions can be respected if they’re appropriately expressed, the prime minister said.

Netanyahu added that there is now a “new Middle East.”

Harper met Netanyahu, who routinely refers to “Stephen” as a “friend of Israel,” after a warm reception from Shimon Peres at the president’s office.

After being welcomed by Peres on a red carpet in a courtyard, Harper entered an elegant vestibule and penned a lengthy message in a guestbook.

In his remarks, Peres said Harper is visiting during a challenging time, adding that “Syria is broken, Iran is broken.”

Harper replied that every time he and Peres speak, he finds it “very thought provoking,” noting that Canada is the “polar opposite of Israel” because it has “much geography but very little history.”

He said they agree that the future is the knowledge economy and there is no better example of that than Israel.

Harper and Netanyahu and their wives later spent an hour visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, parts of which were designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

Netanyahu spoke at length at every stop of the tour, explaining the exhibits to Harper and his wife Laureen. At the end of the visit, they stopped in the harrowing Hall of Names, where the names of Holocaust victims are permanently preserved.

A 10-metre-high conical structure overhead holds photos of hundreds of victims, many of them young children.

On Monday, Harper delivered a historic speech to parliamentarians in the Knesset in which he warned of a new age of anti-Semitism and said those who oppose the Jewish state are little more than hateful anti-Semites.

Harper earlier met the president of the Palestinian Authority and offered $66 million in new aid to the Palestinians.