Stephen Harper's Strange Obsession with Israel

The Canadian government's position on Israel has once again entered the spotlight this week, as Liberal fundraiser Stephen Bronfman pointed out that Justin Trudeau had actually been to Israel, while Israel's close friend Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not. A day later, reports emerged that the Prime Minister would be visiting Israel shortly – perhaps to visit the Bird Sanctuary that is being named in his honour. Again, the strange connection the Conservatives have forged with Israel seems stronger than ever but no less explicable.

We have discussed this issue on Clio's Current previously, but it's worth revisiting. The announcement that the United States had reached an agreement with Iran last week over its nuclear program surprised many. Secret negotiations had been ongoing for months. The United States told its traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel little about the agreement until it was ready to be announced.  While negotiations continue and details may change, it seems as if President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani have taken an important step in thawing American-Iranian relations. One that many may have thought was impossible a few short years or months ago.

Of course this puts Israel in an awkward position. They have rejected any rapprochement with Iran, a country whose leaders have previously denied the Holocaust and threatened their state with nuclear devastation. On the other hand, one of their staunchest allies has been the United States. Israel, alongside the Saudis, have denounced the deal as a historic mistake. Do not trust Tehran, they warn the Americans. Perhaps they are right, though it is difficult for unbiased observers to agree. The agreement must be a welcome diplomatic achievement – at the very least it is a step in the right direction. One that has occurred without degrading to the hostile rhetoric that is often used when the the United States and Iran have tried to communicate in the past. Surely any progress without the threat of war is worthwhile?

Unsurprisingly, Canada has stood firmly by Israel's side. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has condemned the agreement, saying he is “deeply sceptical” and Canada will continue its sanctions against Iran. Canada has had little more it can do than to sit on the sidelines. We closed our Iranian Embassy last year and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada.  “Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” was part of the justification for the action. A year later, it seems as if continued diplomatic engagement with Iran has perhaps dampened that threat to global peace and security.

In March 2012, John Baird talked about Canada's close relationship with Israel and its position on Iran with Al Jazeera. In the interview, Baird said that “the best way to [deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions] is to work with like-minded allies” and “stay focused on every diplomatic effort we can take.” Six months later, Canada cut its diplomatic ties with Iran. Today, the “diplomatic efforts” of the United States have helped deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions while Canada actively ignores one of the most important nations in the region. Our “like-minded allies” today means Israel, not the world's most powerful nation, the United States.

Perhaps these developments are not surprising. The Conservatives have focused on “economic diplomacy,” preferring to focus on trade deals rather than other diplomatic objectives.  The trade deal with the European Union is the major successes of that Conservative focus, although it is not entirely new. The Liberals under Jean Chretien also pushed Canada in an economic direction for international affairs, with his famous trips to China or even his refusal to renounce the North American Free Trade Agreement after his election in 1993. Canada has signed several Free Trade Agreements in recent years and continue to negotiate new ones.  What's different is that the Liberals also achieved humanitarian objectives through diplomacy, such as crafting the Ottawa Treaty that banned landmines. They did not have a singular focus on economic goals alone.

So, given this shift away from diplomacy for diplomacy's sake, the Conservatives' stalwart defence of Israel seems even more unusual. What economic gain is there from siding with Israel over the United States? Even if Canada chooses to no longer help broker international agreements as it once did, which is a justified international policy direction even if some do not agree with it, where does Israel fit in? As we noted in our last blog post on the subject, there is still no explanation of Canada's new closest ally: the state of Israel. It seems like Canadian foreign policy exists solely as an arm of economic prosperity and support for Israel.

Some might argue that Canada can do little else without the world's largest military that the Americans possess. Yet, Canada has been an effective power-broker on the international stage for decades, walking softly without carrying a “big stick,” as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once advised. After the Second World War, Canada forged a path in international relations as a “middle power.” We did not have the clout to be a “great” or “super” power, but if we could act as mediators between them and smaller powers then we could wield some diplomatic influence on the international stage. Our support for multilateralism helped resolve the Suez Crisis in 1956, participate in peacekeeping efforts around the globe, and more recently act as a stabilizing force in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The Israel that exists under hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a multilateral presence on the world stage – you are with Israel, or you against them.

In our first post, we described three different ways that Canadians understand their place in the world. Then we described Prime Minister Stephen Harper as aligning Canada towards our American allies, or at least to a North American identity. Each of the three understood Canadian foreign policy through international obligations, either to middle power diplomacy, (North) American interests, or expressing Canadian values. Today, Canada's foreign policy is about “economic diplomacy” and, seemingly, Israel.

Such a narrow international range of responsibilities seems far away from the Canada that was engaged with the world over the last fifty years.

Our next post continues our discussion of Israel.