Harper's support for Israel: Political, philosophical or both?

Whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unwavering support of Israel is part of a cynical strategy to gain votes among the Jewish community, or part of a deeply held conviction, he has ignored criticism that Canada has abandoned its role as an honest broker in the Mideast.

Personal convictions intersect with political advantage

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Harper's support for Israel is based on his own principles, but has also provided him with voter support. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In 2010, while addressing an anti-Semitism conference in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched into a full-throttle defence of Israel, saying that whatever the political cost, he would take a stand against those who would single out the Jewish state for condemnation.

And most supporters and critics of his agree that he has been true to his word. Whether Harper's unwavering support of Israel is part of a cynical political strategy to gain votes among the Jewish community, or part of a deeply held conviction, he has ignored criticism that Canada has abandoned its role as an honest broker in the Middle East.

"I think this is one of those happy incidences in politics where personal principle collides with or intersects with political self-interest, "said communications consultant Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative think-tank.

Harper's strong support of Israel was revealed again recently, when Canada found itself among only a handful of countries voting against the Palestinian bid for observer state status in the UN.

And the Harper government seemed to be alone in the world community in its reluctance to publicly condemn Israel's announcement to build housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, even though it's at odds with Canada's position on settlements in the occupied territories.

Long-held conviction

Nicholls said he and Harper would discuss Israel from time to time during their stint at National Citizens Coalition, and that Harper was always very sympathetic to Israel.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird addresses the United Nations General Assembly to oppose the Palestinian bid for observer state status. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

"In our conversations, he'd say 'Gerry, I'm very pro-Israel.' And this is not something he needed to say for votes, this is not something he needed to say for cynical political advancement, because he was just saying it to me," Nicholls said. 

"He was always saying that Canada needs to do more to support Israel, they're an important ally. So I think it's just a matter of his own personal beliefs."

But Nicholls said that Harper's position on Israel also helps him out politically, by mobilizing his base, particularly those among the Christian right who tend to be strongly pro-Israel.

However, Nicholls rejected the idea that Harper's support for Israel stems from any personal religious conviction.

"He looks at Israel not in terms of their religion. He doesn't look at them as being Jews. He looks at them as being people who uphold Western values."

Jewish voter support increasing

Support for Conservatives, who have targeted Jewish ridings, has also increased among Jewish voters, who have traditionally parked their votes with the Liberal Party. According to an Ipsos Reid exit poll for the last election, 52 per cent of Jewish voters supported the Tories.

And a recent Nanos poll suggests that while half of Canadians prefer the government favour neither side, 19 per cent said the government should support Israel and only six per cent said it should favour the Palestinians.

Lawrence Martin, Globe and Mail columnist and author of the book Harperland: The Politics of Control, agreed that Harper's stance on Israel is driven by both political benefit and genuine conviction.

"He is a longtime supporter of Israel, sees it as a perennially threatened beacon of democracy and freedom in a region of violence and chaos. He has never had much kinship with the Arab world," Martin said via email.

But Harper's policy toward Israel, Martin said, has also been a major political success for him and "has won him strong support from a very important community and it has allowed him to cast himself as a principled leader."

Diplomatic shift toward Israel

Nowhere is this support more evident than at the United Nations. Harold Waller, a political science professor at McGill University, who specializes in Jewish political studies, said that while previous Canadian governments were supportive of Israel, Canada was somewhat mushy when it came to UN resolutions critical of Israel, and often abstained.

 While there was a shift at the UN under the Paul Martin government to be more supportive of Israel, it increased under the Harper government.

"I think Harper's backing of Israel is unprecedented for any Canadian prime minister. He's much more a staunch supporter of Israel than any of his predecessors," Waller said.

In 2006, during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, when many nations criticized Israel for using disproportionate force, Harper said the Israeli response had been "measured."

The prime minister was also reportedly the lone holdout of the final communiqué from the G8 meeting in France last year dealing with Israel, and was able to remove a reference about Israel's pre-1967 borders.

As well, Canada became the first country to announce it would review aid to the Palestinians following the parliamentary elections in 2006 that saw Hamas come to power. It also become the first country to announce it would not take part in the UN anti-racism conferences of 2009 and 2011, accusing those conferences of being forums to criticize Israel.

In 2010 then foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon raised some eyebrows when he condemned Israel's announcement to build 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem, saying that "we feel that this is contrary to international law and therefore condemn it. We're very concerned with what is taking place."

His office quickly followed up, denying the government was escalating its language or changing its position on Israel, but also did not repeat Cannon's language that Israel's building plans were "contrary to international law."

And with Israel's announcement last week that it would build 3,000 more housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, government officials again seemed reluctant to specifically condemn the actions, only saying  that "unilateral action by either side is not helpful."

Nicholls, who has been critical of Harper in the past, accusing the prime minister of compromising some of his conservative principles, praised Harper's consistency on the issue of Israel, saying it's one of the few cases "where Stephen Harper NCC president is in perfect synch with Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada."

"NCC president Stephen Harper would be saying the same thing and you don't often get that. I think most often NCC Stephen Harper would be raging at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but this is one thing they'd both agree on."