Harper makes historic address to Knesset

Canadian students spending a year in Israel show their support for Harper – from left, Talia Shiel, Tamar Gross, Tali Serman, Leora Mayer, and Tehila Colman

JERUSALEM (Video) — In a powerful speech in both English and French before a special Knesset session Monday afternoon in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that “Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so,” rather than for trade, investment or security reasons.

After being presented with the key to the Knesset – the first foreign dignitary in Israel’s history to receive such an honour – Harper strongly denounced “the emergence of a new strain… of the old disease of anti-Semitism.”

Not every listener was sympathetic, however:Two Arab lawmakers, Ahmad Tibi and Hanna Swaid, interrupted Harper several times in the middle of his speech before walking out of the chamber. Their exit was applauded by lawmakers and the visitors’ gallery.

Harper  became the first Canadian prime minister to address Israeli lawmakers in the parliament as part of his first visit since taking office in 2006. The visitors’ gallery was filled with Canadian-Israelis.

Harper began by joking that now that he has the key to the Knesset, “I feel I can come and go whenever I choose.” The rest of his talk, the first in the Knesset by a Canadian prime minister, spoke directly – and, at times, bluntly – to the reasons he’s visiting the region this week.

“Israelis have endured attacks and slanders beyond counting and have never known a day of true peace,” Harper said, referring to the “impossible calculus” Israelis live with each day: widespread condemnation if Israel defends itself, but “should you fail to act, you alone will suffer the consequence… your destruction.”

Harper spoke of the long history of shared values between Israel and Canada, and of the contributions of Canada’s Jewish community, and of the benefits Canada has reaped from its relationship with Israel, including military reconnaissance technology, which saved many Canadian lives in Afghanistan. “All such connections are important, and build strong bridges between us,” he said.

“However, those are not enough without a deeper understanding of Israel’s emergence post-Holocaust as a bastion of freedom, and of its unique role as “the only country In the Middle East… anchored… in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

Today’s anti-Semitism, Harper said, is more polite, but insidious nonetheless. “People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.On some campuses… arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask … the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students.

“Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that.” At this point, two hecklers, the two Arab-Israeli MKs who’d been shouting out criticisms of Israeli policy – one had been calling out in English and Hebrew that his village lacked electricity and water – stormed out of the Knesset session.

Nevertheless, Harper went on, insisting that blaming Israel is meaningless. “Neither Israel’s existence, nor its policies, are responsible for the instability in the Middle East today,” Harper said.

And so, Harper urged, Canadians must support Israel whether or not that support offers economic or political advantage. “This is a very Canadian trait,” said Harper. “To do something for no reason other than it is right, even when no immediate reward for, or threat to, ourselves is evident.”

This commitment to “what is fair, right and just… applies no less,” Harper said, “to the Palestinian people. Just as we unequivocally support Israel’s right of self-defence, so too Canada has long-supported a just and secure future for the Palestinian people.I believe we share with Israel a sincere hope that the Palestinian people and their leaders will choose a viable, democratic, Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish State of Israel.”

Earlier Monday, Harper met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, extending an additional $66 million in Canadian aid. He quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that when Palestine makes peace with Israel, Israel will be the first to welcome their state to the United Nations, but added that Canada will be “right behind you.”

While “no state is beyond legitimate questioning or criticism,” Harper promised support to Israel in three key moral areas: First, “Canada finds it deplorable that some in the international community still question the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel. Second, Canada believes that Israel should be able to exercise its full rights as a UN member-state… [and] third, we refuse to single out Israel for criticism on the international stage.”

With regard to the situation in Iran, Harper said, “We truly hope that it is possible to walk the Iranian government back from taking the irreversible step of manufacturing nuclear weapons.” He reiterated his commitment to taking any economic sanctions necessary, regardless of the position of the UN Security Council and of Germany. “At the turning points of history, Canada has consistently chosen… to confront the dark forces of the world.

‘Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.’

“In the democratic family of nations, Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith, and principles to drive our national life. And therefore, through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.” This last line received a standing ovation, a fitting conclusion to a no-holds-barred speech.

Rev. David Wells, general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, joined Harper as part of the controversially large delegation of religious and community leaders. He reiterated the Christian community’s support for Israel. Like Jews, said Rev. Wells, Christians need not agree with every decision of Israel’s government – “just like I don’t always agree with everything the government of Canada does” – but he emphasized that their commitment flows naturally from their belief in God’s everlasting covenant with the Jewish People.

Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs CEO Shimon Fogel was particularly thrilled to see the excitement on the faces of Israeli Knesset members as Harper spoke, validating Harper’s words about the things our governments jointly hold dear. For Fogel, Harper’s speech reflected “the very real challenges faced by the Jewish state and Jewish People,” but he said it was “remarkably balanced” in articulating Canada’s long-held views on the need for a two-state solution. Fogel called the additional $66 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority consistent with Canada’s ongoing support of legitimate endeavours within those regions. “Support for Israel doesn’t have to come at [their] expense.”

Leon Genesove, national vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, said the Israel trip showed Harper’s recognition of the shared values between Israel and Canada.

“He doesn’t give in to pressure from the worldwide community,” said Genesove, calling the visit an “expression of love for the state of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the people of Israel.”

In a short talk before Harper’s address, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein spoke of Israel’s long affection for and connection with Canada, particularly for Lester Pearson, who, as chair of the UN’s General Assembly’s Special Committee on Palestine prior to his career in Canadian politics, laid the groundwork for the creation of the state.

Netanyahu himself also spoke briefly before Harper, mentioning the contributions of Jewish-Canadian soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and the ongoing warmth of the Canadian Jewish community.

Outside, with the backdrop of a glorious sunset over Jerusalem, a group of about 60 Canadians from all over Israel rallied to wave flags and show support.

Organizer Danny Hershtal told the CJN, “Israelis don’t follow Canadian politics… they have to understand why he’s being treated so nicely and welcomed to Israel so warmly.”  Earlier in the day, the group was told that, for security reasons, they couldn’t demonstrate in their previously approved location in front of the Knesset, and participants later expressed disappointment that they had been “stood up” by authorities who knew of the change but failed to reroute Harper’s motorcade so he could see the rally..

Harper arrived Sunday night  for his four-day visit and was greeted by an honour guard and words of praise from Netanyahu.

“When it comes to anti-Semitism, you have stood up unabashedly at the side of Israel and the entire Jewish people, I think at the side of decency and fairness to everyone: Jews and non-Jews alike,” Netanyahu said. “And when it comes to Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s annihilation and its unrelenting development of nuclear weapons, you and Canada have stood unflinchingly on the right side of history.

“And finally, when it comes to peace, you recognize that a genuine peace, a lasting peace, must be based on mutual recognition and sound security arrangements on the ground. I think in all this and in so many other things, you have shown courage, clarity and conviction.”

Just days before Harper’s visit to Israel, the Canadian Foreign Ministry issued an updated policy paper on Israel and the Palestinians stating that Canada believes Israeli settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace, Ha’aretz reported.

 With files from JTA