Stephen Harper’s ‘historic’ trip reignites debate about his staunch support of Israel

Stephen Harper with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill in March 2012 (CP)Stephen Harper's jaunt to the Middle East this week is historic.

That's not media hype or hyperbole, that's actually how the Prime Minister's Office is describing the trip that begins in earnest on Sunday.

Over the next seven days, the prime minister, several senior cabinet ministers and a taxpayer-funded delegation of about 30 people will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

In Israel, Harper will be given the rock-star treatment as a reward for being one of that nation's most ardent international supporters. As explained by the National Post, the prime minister will visit the bird sanctuary that carries his name, will address the Israeli parliament and will be given an honourary doctorate by the Tel Aviv University.

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Harper's support of Israel has been a pillar of his government's foreign policy.

At the United Nations and other multi-lateral summits, Canada has been one of the few countries to oppose resolutions that have portrayed Israel as the root cause of the conflict with Palestine.

Moreover, both Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have consistently and publicly touted their unconditional support for the Jewish state.

"There is no better friend to Israel than Canada," Baird said in a speech last January.

"We shall always be there for you and in front of you."

That unflinching support, however, has consistently rankled pundits, analysts and foreign policy watchers who argue that such a myopic view weakens Canada's ability to act as a broker for peace and progress in the region.

Harper's Middle East tour, has reignited that debate — a debate that will likely heat-up throughout the course of the week-long visit. Here's a sampling of what's been written so far:

From Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, special to the Toronto Star:

"As Stephen Harper’s vanity tour of Israel begins, we can be confident about two eventual outcomes.

Harper’s supporters often justify this radical pro-Israeli tilt as an effort to correct an imbalance in the Middle East. This suggests that previous Canadian governments were hostile to Israel, even pro-Arab — which is absolute nonsense.

For Canada, its reputation in significant parts of the world will sink ever lower as a result. And for the State of Israel, it will have even more reason — with friends like Canada’s prime minister — to fear for its future."

From Jeffery Simpson of the Globe and Mail:

"[Previous] governments, while never wavering in their support for Israel, nonetheless tried to understand the complexities of the world’s most tangled region. They offered help, where possible and where wanted, to all sides (except avowedly terrorist groups) in the region’s enduring political conflicts, bearing in mind that Canada’s influence there has always been slight.

Such a world view, applied to the Middle East, leaves no room for nuance, balance or understanding of complexity, just a dualistic clash between good and evil, progress and darkness, stability and danger. Of course, this is not how other Western countries behave in the Middle East, including those who strongly support Israel. But it is now Canada’s way."

Simpson adds that such a policy also helps the Conservatives politically.

"This positioning has been hugely appreciated by Jewish voters, but also by evangelical Christian faiths, many of which hold a favourable theological view of Israel," he wrote.

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There's also, however, the alternative view — that Harper's position is just and principled.

From David Weinberg, who moved from Toronto to Israel in 1990, for the Jerusalem Post.

"This is a world in which the leadership of Iran vows to erase Israel, asserts that the Holocaust never happened, and continues to build a nuclear weapon – while receiving applause at the UN in New York, and praise for 'moderation' in Geneva and Washington.

Prime Minister Harper’s bold words and actions give Israelis hope that there are indeed many decent people, some of them in positions of power, who will not bow to demonization or to the Orwellian twisting of language and history that habitually pertains to Israel these days."

You can hear and listen to Harper's "bold words and actions" here. The Tories have set-up a website so that those inclined can get regular updates from the prime minister’s visit.

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(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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