The sharp-witted Jewish leader-turned-columnist Isi Leibler wrote a piece in November 2010 praising Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s emerging pro-Israel leadership. But Leibler’s article contained two statements that should have served as a wake-up call to President Obama. They didn’t, and tensions continue to rise between the American president and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
The first statement was delivered early in the article: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has unquestionably emerged as Israel’s greatest friend in the world, effectively assuming the role previously occupied by former Australian prime minister John Howard.”
The latter part of that sentence was a sharp rebuke to the White House. It wasn’t surprising that Leibler would acknowledge Harper’s new role as the head of state that was Israel’s most reliable advocate. But Leibler was actually claiming that Harper had taken the spot not of the American president, but of the Australian prime minister.
Later in the article, Leibler notes that Canada’s bid for a seat on the Security Council was defeated after Harper criticized the UN’s record on Israel. “For some,” Leibler wrote, “Canada’s defeat under such circumstances will be viewed as a badge of honor. But what made Canada’s defeat even more outrageous was the role of the US. According to Richard Grenfell, a former press officer with the US mission to the UN, ‘US State Department insiders say that US Ambassador Susan Rice not only didn’t campaign for Canada’s election but instructed American diplomats to not get involved in the weekend leading up to the heated contest.’… The US betrayal of its neighbor and long-standing ally is a chilling indication of the depths to which the Obama administration has stooped in its efforts to ‘engage’ and appease Islamic and Third World rogue states.”
This set the stage, rather predictably, for how both countries would react to Obama’s suggestion that Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations begin with, and then build upon, the 1967 ceasefire lines. After Obama made the suggestion in a speech May 19, members of Congress from both parties criticized the president, as did Netanyahu and pro-Israel groups. Obama responded by doubling down on the concept in his speech to the annual America-Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference the following Sunday.
Obama’s language on the conflict was roundly criticized again by both parties, and the president took his Mideast plan to last week’s meeting of the G-8 countries—the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada—where he submitted it for approval by the group. Worried that a public statement by the G-8 countries would reinforce international pressure on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines, Netanyahu called Harper, according to Haaretz (a Harper spokesman denied any orchestration between the two leaders). The Israeli daily reported that every G-8 country aside from Canada approved of the 1967 language; Harper responded by insisting the language be omitted from the final statement.
Harper said he supports Obama’s speech on the Mideast, but that “You can’t cherry pick elements of that speech.” Harper has come under some partisan criticism for the move. “We are not talking about being at odds with Sweden, we are being at odds with our fundamental allies, like the British or the French,” Mike Molloy, former Canadian Mideast diplomat, told Canada’s Embassy magazine.
But David Cooper, director of government relations for the Canada-Israel Committee, the country’s organized Jewish community’s liaison to the Canadian government, said the criticism rings hollow. When George W. Bush was in office, Cooper said, the Canadian leadership would field complaints that it was in lock step with the American government. Yet now, an Obama presidency has inspired a concern for the need to be neighborly.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy,” Cooper said. “And I think a lot of it is because it revolves around the issue of Israel, which is always something that causes people to have very sharp opinions.”
Cooper said that foreign policy issues rarely dominate an election, so the prime minister’s support is not poll-driven. Nonetheless, the Jewish community—though barely 1 percent of the population—did participate in the Conservative party’s decisive general election victory last month, in which the Conservatives increased their seats in parliament to 166, giving the party a majority.
“The Jewish community has gone over significantly,” Cooper aid. “One poll that I saw said that 52 percent of Jews voted conservative, 24 percent voted for the liberal party, 16 percent for the NDP (New Democrat Party).”
And Cooper also noted that Harper’s opinion on the G-8 statement could not have been too controversial among the other nations if it prevailed and informed the language of the joint statement.
“I think at any of these international summits, it doesn’t matter what the country is, or what the issue is, there are always countries that have a particular point of view,” Cooper said. “And they express it, and sometimes it shapes—and sometimes it doesn’t shape—the final communiqué. And I think in this case the prime minister was persuasive in his argument.”
But to Canada’s Jewish community, as well as the pro-Israel movement worldwide, none of this comes as much of a surprise. Two years ago, Canada was the first to announce it would boycott the second Durban conference, the first of which in 2001 quickly devolved into an anti-Israel hate fest, and the second was shaping up to be similar. Canada also led the opposition to the appointment of Richard Falk, a 9⁄11 conspiracy theorist who compares Israeli Jews to Nazis, as the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories.
Cooper also noted the Canadian government’s strong opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. “Iran continues to be a big issue and the government has gone quite far in terms of initiating sanctions, and is very conscious of the issue,” he said.
Conscious of that issue and more, Harper is getting noticed as the go-to advocate for Israel on the international stage.
Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.