Stephen Harper survives Mideast minefield, tough talk and all

By avoiding the kind of gaffes that tend to sideline visiting leaders, Stephen Harper's Middle East tour was undoubtedly a success. But, in some respects, he did better than that — not least, by evading some of the expected Palestinian hostility to his sharp tilt towards Israel.

Staying clear of gaffes and disasters counts as victory on a Mideast tour

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unequivocal support for Israel this week was warmly received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Canada under Harper one of Israel's 'closest allies.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Middle East has always been a graveyard for ambitious visitors hoping to strut on the world stage. Big shots can suddenly get sidelined by bigger news. Snubs, gaffes or lost luggage can knock the whole trip off course.

Ask Joe Clark, who struggled with lost luggage — and the issues — during a Mideast tour before his brief time as prime minister.

Even hardened veterans can stumble. On a 2008 junket, Senator John McCain famously claimed that Iran was training al-Qaeda terrorists. Oops! Shia Iran is fervently hostile to the Sunni al-Qaeda. Nobody remembers anything else about McCain's visit.

So the trick is to avoid any disasters. And by that crucial measure, Stephen Harper emerged intact.

Stephen Harper received a courteous welcome from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, in the West Bank city of Ramallah Monday, where he announced $66 million in new aid from Canada. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

But, in some respects, he did better than that — not least, by evading some of the expected Palestinian hostility to Harper's sharp tilt toward Israel.

Harper, of course, pledged that Canada would stand with Israel, "through fire and water." But the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, meekly said that he hoped Canada's policy would change.

Of course, when you are standing next to a visitor holding a cheque for $66 million to help build a future state, it's rude to complain. In fact, under both Liberals and Conservatives, Canada has played a quiet but effective role in creating a security force and a justice system, without which no Palestinian state will ever function. So Abbas was polite.

Besides that, Abbas could be grateful that Harper did not actually repudiate Canada's policy that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal "obstacles to peace." True, Harper repeatedly declined to use those words in public — but he confirmed that the policy still stands, advertised or not. To spell it out, Harper suggested, would be to "single out Israel for criticism."

Taking sides

In truth, nobody asked Harper to single out Israel for criticism. And though he complained that nobody asked him to criticize the Palestinians, there's no corresponding ambiguity in his policy to ask him about.

Of course, Palestinians not standing next to Harper were less reticent than Abbas. Hanan Ashrawi, well known as a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said Canada had become "even more Zionist than the Israelis."

It is all too easy to 'go along to get along,' and single out Israel. But such 'going along to get along' is not a 'balanced' approach.… It is, quite simply, weak and wrong.—Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Knesset

"All these statements coming from Canada have been extremely counterproductive, extremely prejudicial, extremely biased," Ashrawi told CBC News.

"Canada is seen as taking sides with the oppressor."

Of course, there's no doubt that, under Harper, Canada is taking sides, merely by insisting that Israel is entitled to exist as a Jewish state and to defend itself.

But Harper went further, first, by directly attacking Israel's critics in the harshest terms, and, second, by giving a scathing account of the prevailing dysfunction in Israel's turbulent neighbourhood.

His assault on Israel's detractors was merciless. Harper called it "sickening" that Israel is accused of practising "apartheid." And he made a virtue of his refusal to navigate the Mideast minefield by being nice to both sides.

"It is all too easy to 'go along to get along,' and single out Israel," he told the Knesset.

"But such 'going along to get along' is not a 'balanced' approach, nor a 'sophisticated' one. It is, quite simply, weak and wrong."

Tough talk about the region

Nor was Harper ambiguous about his disdain for Islamist forces around the region. He poured scorn on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for attempting, under the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, to establish "an authoritarian Islamic state."

And he came close to expressing some nostalgia for the old Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm, unbridled enthusiasm in much of the West for the revolution in Egypt, and with very good reason. We were a little more cautious, and I think that caution has been borne out.”

On Syria, Harper saw no reason to cheer for anyone — for the Iranian-backed Assad regime or for the Islamist forces ranged against him.

“I don’t see how the victory of either of those forces could be in the interests of Canada or Israel or anyone else," Harper said.

And he accused Iran of planning not just to build nuclear weapons but to use them.

"This is a regime in Iran, an extremist fundamentalist regime with a violent and hateful ideology, and it wants to possess nuclear weapons. It tells the world it wants to possess nuclear weapons for the purpose of using nuclear weapons, which is truly frightening.”

To say that all of this went over well with the Israeli government is putting it mildly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be seen eagerly nudging his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as if to say, "Hear that?" as Harper addressed the Knesset. And in his own speech, Netanyahu put it simply.

"I know, Stephen, that our concerns are your concerns," he said. "Canada, under your leadership, is one of Israel's closest allies."

Harper couldn't have written that better himself. He took sides without apology and without explicitly altering Canada's fundamental policy. The controversy over the size and composition of his delegation remained a secondary story.

And many of his MPs got the "million-dollar shot" at the Western Wall that York Centre MP Mark Adler was so eager to get for his re-election campaign.

Plus, nobody lost their luggage.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.