Harper and Netanyahu to talk Sunday for first time since Israeli election

Canada has been taking a low-key approach to relations with Israel after Netanyahu made incendiary remarks during his campaign

OTTAWA – As relations between the U.S. and Israel continued to deteriorate Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was playing the politics of silence with the Middle East in the wake of the Israeli election.

Harper plans a Sunday telephone call with his Israeli counterpart and friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But so far, the Canadian government has maintained a low profile in reaction to Netanyahu’s victory in Tuesday’s hotly contested election.

The hardline Israeli leader won re-election, but not before making some incendiary remarks in the final day of the campaign that raised the ire of the Obama administration in Washington.

Fearing a loss of votes among his most right-wing supporters, Netanyahu said he that he opposed Palestinian statehood under the current conditions – which flies in the face of the Middle East policy of Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Netanyahu has since appeared to backtrack in an interview with U.S. media saying he supports a Palestinian state under improved conditions.

The low-key Harper approach contrasts with the feud between the U.S. and Israel in the wake of Netanyahu’s controversial comments.

Harper tweeted his congratulations on Wednesday, as did Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, but has yet to talk directly with Netanyahu.

An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the two prime ministers plan to talk on Sunday after the Jewish Sabbath. Harper’s office had no comment.

The official noted that most world leaders have used Twitter so far to congratulate Netanyahu, but have been careful in their wording. That’s because Netanyahu doesn’t formally become prime minister until he has cobbled together a governing coalition.

So far, only U.S. President Barack Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande have telephoned Netanyahu, the Israeli official said.

By all accounts, Obama’s conversation reflected the continuing tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, with the president telling the Israeli leader that the U.S. is reassessing its position to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because of Netanyahu’s comments about a Palestinian state.

The reality of Israel’s coalition-style politics has also bought the Harper government some time and allowed it to stay above the fray.

“My sense is they’re being quiet to stay out of it,” said retired Canadian diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove, whose last posting was to Egypt.

“I’m utterly, totally disgusted by Netanyahu,” he said, but the fact the Israeli leader has appeared to re-embrace the two-state solution is good news for Harper.

Harper can now point to Netanyahu’s clarification as an indication that they are on the same page, de Kerckhove said.

Historian Jack Granatstein said Harper’s support for Israel is unwavering, so there is no way he will climb down.

“It has worked very well for Harper in getting support in the Jewish community and he’s not going to turn away from this,” Granatstein said in an interview.

“I think that reaches a lot of evangelicals, it certainly reaches Jews and I expect it reaches a lot of people who actually say, ‘God, he actually has principles’.”

Canada’s Jewish community may be divided on Netanyahu, but not on Israel, he added.

The Canadian chapter of the human rights organization Independent Jewish Voices denounced Netanyahu’s earlier comments on Palestinian statehood, saying they are a strong indication that “the Palestinians will remain an occupied people under a system of differential rights.”