Belief, Not Principle, Guiding Canada’s Mideast Policy

There has been a good deal of debate regarding Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Israel, and in particular his speech to the Israeli Knesset. Supporters of the government trumpet what they see as a triumphant Prime Ministerial tour, one that has further cemented bilateral ties and reinforced the government’s strong and “principled” support for Israel. Critics decry Harper’s continued lack of balance and lament that the tour simply reinforced Canada’s unqualified support for Israel, thus leading to the further marginalization of Canada in the region.

Yet none of this is new, of course. The outcomes both sides assert were already evident long before the visit.

Mistaking, or disguising, particular beliefs as universal principles is a dangerous approach to foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East, which is riven by conflicts fueled by conviction.

Harper and Foreign Minister Baird have repeatedly and publicly sided with the Netanyahu government. They sought to block the UN vote recognizing Palestine as a Permanent Observer State, and threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians in retaliation. On several occasions, they refused to criticize the construction of new Israeli settlements or new housing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They sided with Israel (against the U.S.) in voicing skepticism about the interim nuclear deal with Iran; and in deference to Israeli hostility to the International Criminal Court, they dropped out of efforts to refer the situation in Syria to that court. It is hard to imagine a stronger alignment of policy.

The Harper government’s unbalanced policy concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has long undermined Canadian influence in the region (and beyond). No one with an interest in Canadian policy would have been the least bit surprised over Harper’s speech to the Knesset. Appeals for the Prime Minister to exercise statesmanship, or for Canada to use its close ties to Israel to quietly support the peace process, are well-intentioned but pointless.

The Prime Minister has made it biblically clear: Canada stands with Israel “through fire and water”, and will never “single out” Israel for criticism. Such unqualified support emboldens only the hardliners in Israel, as no doubt the Prime Minister will discover as efforts begin to lobby Canada to drop its official policy—even if it’s one Harper is loath to state—viewing the occupation and settlements as illegal.

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So, is there anything new emerging? Perhaps what came through more clearly than ever before is the degree to which Harper’s unqualified support for Israel is a matter of conviction. He repeatedly stated his belief that it is the right thing to do.

Many asserted that Harper has taken a “principled” approach; Netanyahu called it “moral leadership”. But principles and convictions are not the same thing. What is the principle or moral at stake? Unqualified support for Israel is a policy, not a principle.

Perhaps what is meant is that as a matter of principle, Canada will support democracy and the rule of law, which are much more evident in Israel than in neighbouring Arab states. But if so, why single out Israel for praise, since there are democratic reforms underway in many Mideast countries? Though they fall far short of achieving the degree of judicial independence, press freedom and free electoral politics found in Israel, so does Israeli rule in the West Bank fall far short of any objective democratic standard. Referring to Israel as the “light” in a region of “darkness” hardly encourages democratic reformers elsewhere in the Mideast.

Perhaps the principle at issue is to demand even-handedness, especially with respect to human rights criticism. This is a good principle, and indeed a crucial one if criticism is to have an impact. But it’s a stretch to make the principle of even-handedness support a policy of silence (for example, on settlement expansion even when standing in the West Bank). An even-handed response to the question on settlements put to Prime Minister Harper in Ramallah would have been to state Canada’s view of their illegality while also noting that Canada believes many Palestinian policies in the West Bank violate international human rights standards (for example, in tolerating official discourse that incites hatred).

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On the last day of his visit, Harper explained his support for Israel by saying, “[w]hen someone is a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them, not single them out for criticism. That is a fundamental Canadian ethic.” Although Israel faces threats both to its legitimacy and its security, its minority situation is hardly unique. Moreover, with its own military might and the unequivocal backing of U.S. military power, it is far better equipped to defend its interests than many such minorities. It is right to highlight past injustice and to support minorities who have suffered grave human rights abuses and remain vulnerable. But Canadians are unlikely to agree that such maxims mean that criticism of current policy is impermissible. (If it did, on what basis do Canadians, and the Harper government, criticize First Nations’ mismanagement of their reserves?)

What we have, then, is a Prime Minister pursuing a policy out of a deep belief that it is the right thing to do. Normally this is no bad thing—unless, of course, that conviction is mistaken for principle, in which case it becomes hard to change course when necessary or admit the truth of facts that might alter one’s conviction.

Mistaking, or disguising, particular beliefs as universal principles is a dangerous approach to foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East, which is riven by conflicts fueled by conviction. Though not usually comfortable with the Prime Minister Harper’s foreign policy, I haven’t, until the last week, lost any sleep over it. Yet as he returns from the Holy Land, as just one more true believer who is certain he knows what’s right for the region, all those who struggle for peace should feel more anxious.

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