Stephen Harper in Israel gets the red-carpet treatment

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests Stephen Harper should be the model for the rest of the world when it comes to Israel, Sasa Petricic writes. Meanwhile, Palestinians say Canada has lost its role as an 'honest broker.'

Palestinians say Canada has lost its role as an 'honest broker'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, sits with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during a welcoming ceremony at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on Sunday during Harper's official visit to the region. (Sebastian Scheiner/The Associated Press)

For weeks, Israeli officials have been hinting that the red carpet readied for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be big and plush, the praise effusive — perhaps even over the top. After all, they say, no other current world leader has been as consistent, vocal – and uncritical – in his backing of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As Harper arrived, newspaper columnist Yaakov Ahimeir praised Harper’s pro-Israel policy as being "blatantly unbalanced." That was a compliment.

Netanyahu suggested he should be a model for everyone else. "Prime Minister Harper has expressed a clear, brave and moral stand regarding the truth and in regard to the standards that the international community needs to adopt regarding the State of Israel and the conflict here." (No wonder the two men talk on the phone weekly.)

Why all the accolades?

Israeli-Canadian Nili Phillipp says until now "we felt very misjudged by Canada." Originally from Ottawa, she now lives with her three children in the bedroom community of Bet Shemesh. Some 20,000 Canadians live in Israel.

Pressuring Israel might feel good — tough love and all this — but it’s not necessarily going to solve the problem, it might even jeopardize our personal safety here.- Nili Phillipp, Israeli-Canadian living in Israel

Phillipp says most Canadians can’t possibly understand the fear Israelis have lived with, through two Palestinian uprisings and numerous terror attacks. But, she says, Harper seems to get it.

"Hopefully, Harper will influence some of the other world leaders to realize, it’s not a simple solution. Pressuring Israel might feel good — tough love and all this — but it’s not necessarily going to solve the problem, it might even jeopardize our personal safety here."

Of course, in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians see things very differently. People say they have a much tarnished image of a country that’s long been respected as fair and even handed, working to promote an agreement between Israel and Palestinians. They’ve noticed that even though Canada officially considers Israeli settlements in the territory illegal, Harper won’t even discuss the issue. “Any attempt to have me, while in the Middle East, single out Israel for criticism, I will not do,” he told reporters in Ramallah.

Canada 'not an honest broker'

“Canada certainly is not an honest broker these days,” says Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). "Canada has abandoned its role as a principled, moral, responsible party trying to end the situation of pain, of conflict and injustice."

Palestinians have also been stung by a dramatic drop in Canadian aid. Despite the fact that the West Bank and Gaza are one of 20 territories Ottawa has designated as ‘Countries of Focus’, ones who need Canadian foreign aid the most, preliminary figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development (DFAITD) suggest a drop of more than 50 per cent in 2012-13 over the previous year. The final figure for 2011-12 was $64.39 million. A year later, it was struggling to break $27 million.

The future is uncertain for a number of big Canadian projects, like three courthouse complexes currently under construction in the West Bank communities of Tulkarem, Nablus and Ramallah. Next year’s funding has not been approved, though Canada committed a total of $50 million to the projects five years ago. Along with the buildings, that includes training for judges and help for Palestinians to improve their legal system.

“It would just be crazy to stop everything part way through,” says the senior judge in Tulkarem, Kamal Jaber. “We need this.”

Abdullah Abdullah is a former Palestinian representative to Canada. He says while Harper rushes to show his support for Israel, it’s clear Palestinians are the ones being punished.

“We don’t question Canada’s relationship with Israel,” he says. “Canada is a sovereign country. We respect that. Canada can take any decision it sees fit. But we object to Canada being inimical to the Palestinians.”

So, as Harper arrives to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week, the official welcome in Ramallah won’t be nearly as warm as in Israel. The red carpet, perhaps a little more threadbare.