Harper's Overblown Israel Lovefest

Why are many Canadians uncomfortable about how handsomely their PM repaid his Israeli hosts for the effusive welcome he received in Jerusalem this week

Matthew Hays i
Matthew Hays
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Matthew Hays i
Matthew Hays

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to the Middle East and speech in the Knesset has drawn elation and praise from many in Israel. For Israelis on the right, the first Canadian PM to ever address the Knesset didn't disappoint. For Canadians, it was interesting to see the usually-bland Harper step out of character and try to work up a passion for something.

But for those who feel having Canada in your corner is really such a great thing, I have bad news for you. Like many Israelis, Canadians often feel a sense of disconnect between how we are perceived on the global stage and what the reality is at home. Canada isn't looking so good these days, neither at home nor abroad.

While it's always nice to hear that people back you up, Canada's military capabilities are so limited that an offer to stand by you Through fire and water", as Harper declared in Jerusalem, probably shouldn't be read as all that comforting. Harper supporters will counter that Canada's reputation as a good, moral nation means the statements and gestures carry huge symbolic weight.

But Canada's good-guy standing in the world has taken a few body blows since Harper gained a majority in 2011. The previous Liberal government had been a key architect of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that attempted to hold individual countries responsible for their carbon output. But Harper's government pulled Canada out of the agreement - notably the first nation to do so. One government endorsed Canada's move at the time, effectively high-fiving us for having done the dirty deed first. That was Russia. Yes, Putin, the man dragging his nation back into the dark ages, has expressed his admiration for our inability to keep our word.

On the domestic front, Harper is faltering. He came into office on two main promises: One was to remain transparent and open to scrutiny, in response to the series of scandals that had plagued the previous Liberal government. The other was the Conservative line that they are the only ones who can be trusted with the economy. But Harper's modus operandi has been to limit questioning and scrutiny at every turn, with many critics convincingly arguing that this is the most secretive government we've ever had. (A Conservative Minister recently had to repeatedly deny that her department had burned books and documents, as had been reported.) They have now been rocked by their own ongoing scandal involving appointments to the senate - a chamber of government Harper once vowed to abolish but instead stacked with his own appointees, several of who have been pushed out of office due to corruption charges.

As for the economy, our unemployment figures have just outdone those of the U.S. (a very bad sign indeed) and every economist and financial planner worth their salt has indicated we are sitting on a giant real estate bubble that is poised to burst. (When it does, they warn, it will be ugly.)

But the tone of Harper's speech should give reason to pause. Full of bluster, its you're-either-with-Israel-or-you're-with-the-terrorists logic handed fodder to those critics who suggest Harper is simply playing from the Bush Doctrine playbook - that widely-discredited series of policies that include not negotiating with your enemies (at least not publicly) and invading countries that don't have any weapons of mass destruction.

Harper went on to sharply criticize Iran, despite its new leadership. But how is Canada supposed to have any impact when we're not even on speaking terms with Iran? Harper managed to unintentionally prove our obsolescence in the arena of international diplomacy when he made such statements. He also evokes a joke making the rounds in Canada these days: The reason we haven't seen much of Bush and Cheney in the past few years is because they are secretly running Canada. Any goodwill the Canadian brand once evoked has been squandered by Harper's poor leadership.

If all this sounds like so much leftist whining, consider that even Canada's right-wing press sounded alarm bells about Harper's speech. Writing in the right-leaning daily National Post (usually a self-styled no-nonsense supporter of Israel), columnist Jonathan Kay wrote a missive titled "Even some Zionists should find the Tories' Israel zeal to be disturbingly manic." How's that for a headline? Kay contends that "I dare say that there is now room for even committed Zionists to wonder whether the Conservatives might not have overshot the mark," pointing out that "It is one thing to express solidarity with Israel in its struggle to fight off enemies in a tight corner of the world," but "the rhetoric Harper is using in Israel is so soaring and effusive, that it seems almost to erase the line that marks where the policies of one country begin and the policies of the other end... The Canadian government is now a much firmer supporter of Netanyahu than Israelis themselves."

Harper's speech did receive strong praise from some pundits, notably former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I know Israelis do feel isolated and are always on the lookout for new friends and allies, but this conjures up two age-old questions: With friends like these, who needs enemies? And is support like this really good for the Jews?

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist who has published in The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Daily Beast. He teaches courses in journalism and communication studies at Concordia University.

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