Harper has made Israel a wedge issue

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Knesset during his recent visit to Israel. [Amos Ben Gershom /GPO]

Last month, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Ramallah, an Israeli journalist asked him to clarify Canada’s position on the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He refused to answer.

“Any attempt to have me, while present in the Middle East, single out the State of Israel for criticism, I will not do,” Harper said.

Later that day, he stood before the Knesset in Jerusalem and described such “criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state” as ”the new anti-Semitism.”

Yet, the government of Canada’s official position, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, is that “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories [including the West Bank] are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” and that “the settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

In other words – and by the prime minister’s own standards – the Conservative government is willing to “single out the State of Israel for criticism.”

Does that make Stephen Harper an anti-Semite?

That suggestion is absurd, of course, but it follows from the prime minister’s logic, not mine. Nor is his name-calling the point. The gulf between the government’s words and its actions – between its style and its substance – rebuts the Conservative claim that the prime minister’s approach to the Middle East is purely “principled.”

Canada’s opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlements is “principled,” after all – it’s based on our country’s longstanding, principled commitment to international law.

It should surprise no one that Harper’s maiden voyage to Israel was a case study in the diplomatic two-step that the region has always required. Every Canadian government, including the present one, has had at least some reservations about at least some of Israel’s policies. The difference, as Harper’s studied silence on settlements illustrates, has been one of emphasis – of style more than substance.

Not that style is insignificant. The prime minister’s stubborn refusal to criticize the Israeli government publicly has won him friends both in Jerusalem and among Canadian Jews. For better or worse, Harper has earned a reputation as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most reliable – and predictable –cheerleader.

No doubt Harper’s support for Israel is genuine, a cocktail of ideological neo-conservatism, Christian evangelicalism, and an earnest desire for the approval of Jewish Conservative partisans. Yet, there’s also no doubt that his fellow Tories have exploited his heartfelt support for Israel in a manner that reflects political choices, not principled ones.

Mark Adler, the Conservative MP for York Centre, emphasized this point rather succinctly during Harper’s trip to Israel. At the Western Wall, Adler tried to elbow his way into a photo with his boss.  “It’s the re-election!” he begged the prime minister’s staff, as the cameras rolled.

The prime minister’s guest list tells a similar story of political stagecraft. Jason Kenney, the minister responsible for the Conservatives’ charm offensive to Jews and other minority groups, joined Harper on his Israel trip. So did Stockwell Day, a former minister who was among the Jewish community’s most enthusiastic suitors while in cabinet.

The prime minister hardly required so much Tory star-power simply to impress his Israeli hosts. No, his target audience was more local: Canadian Jews.

The Conservatives are betting that the 21 rabbis and assorted Tory-friendly Jewish leaders from across the country who followed Harper to the Holy Land would return to Canada to preach the Gospel of Stephen – and Jason and Stockwell, to boot. That strategy is already working, as clergy sermonize about the prime minister and his Conservative apostles from the pulpit.

This political strategy, as much as anything else, explains why Harper bit his tongue in Ramallah, rather than admit that his government opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu knows where Canada stands on the issue. Harper even expressed his objections directly to his Israeli counterpart during a closed-door meeting last month. But the Conservatives’ most ardent Jewish supporters back home are often blind, willfully or otherwise, to the actual nuances of Canada’s Middle East policy. Reminding Canadian Jews – including the ones he brought with him to Israel – that his government sometimes does, in fact, “single out the State of Israel for criticism” was not on the prime minister’s political itinerary.

If Harper’s support for Israel were truly “principled,” he would seek to share it as widely as possible, particularly across party lines. Instead, the Tories, in many cases aided and abetted by the leaders of Jewish organizations, have systematically sought to marginalize Canadians, both Jewish and not, who support Israel but not Harper.

A case in point: In 2008, Georganne Burke, then an aide to Conservative Minister of State Gary Goodyear, made news when she tried to bully Toronto’s Zareinu Educational Centre, a school for disabled children, into cancelling a Chanukah celebration. Why? Because then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had been invited to help light the candles.

Burke’s partisan thuggery was part and parcel of the ongoing Conservative campaign to monopolize the political life of Canada’s Jewish community. Yet, as Harper’s plane left Ottawa for Tel Aviv, there was Burke, snugly aboard. For her partisan harassment of Jewish schoolchildren, she was rewarded with, as she tweeted from Jerusalem during the trip, “a great adventure.”

This is the dark underbelly of the prime minister’s otherwise laudable support for the Jewish state: his party has snatched vice from the jaws of virtue and turned Israel into a partisan bauble, a mere wedge to divide the electorate.

In Israel, Stephen Harper did his level best not to undermine his party’s efforts. Not only did he downplay Canada’s principled opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlements, but he also suggested that it would be “the new anti-Semitism” even to state his own government’s position. The prime minister’s Canadian audience, dazzled by his duplicity, beheld his politics and called it principle.

At a certain point, the spin starts to refute itself.

Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter, and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.