There is no question that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is very popular in Israel and that Canada is considered Israel’s best friend in the world.
As a driver for one of Israel’s Knesset members from the opposition said in the lobby of the David Citadel Hotel, “Is Harper Jewish? He should run for Prime Minister of Israel. He’d be elected. He would make a good Israeli Prime Minister.”
The sentiment was echoed by another employee at the hotel who said, “What I like about Harper is that he is authentic-the real thing. He says what he really thinks and he is not afraid to stand up for us. If there were three or more world leaders who spoke more like him, it would make a world of difference for Israel.”
“We’re used to seeing [US Secretary of State] John Kerry in this hotel with his entourage every few weeks. I’d much rather see Harper than Kerry,” a doorman at the hotel commented.
The American Jews in the lobby of the hotel, where Canadian flags were placed on the street outside, said “We wish Harper were our Prime Minister instead of Obama.”
As a Hebrew media outlet had reported there is a joke in Israel that every time Bibi has to meet Obama he stops first in Canada to get encouragement from his friend Harper.
Another Jerusalemite said “Thank goodness for Harper. Israel is entitled to have one friend in the world.”
Other Israelis noted that they had realized someone important was at the hotel since security was tight “and we saw snipers on the roof.” A nearby restaurant owner added “Oh, the Canadian Prime minister is here. That’s why there was such a big traffic jam today”–since Harper’s large entourage was noted as it traveled to places such as the Western Wall, the Knesset, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem.
There was an issue about the hanging of flags outside the entrance of the David Citadel Hotel as the custom in Israel as decided by a state committee is that flags are only put out for a head of State ( This would mean that for Canada, flags would be put up for the Queen). Down the street at the King David Hotel flags were put up for the President of Romania but not for Harper. However, Netanyahu personally intervened and told the committee that there would be an exception to the usual norm, and ordered them to put the flags up.
Phillip Reichmann of Toronto, Co-Founding Partner of ReichmannHauer Capital Partners, told the Winnipeg Jewish Review he was very excited to be part of the Prime Minister’s delegation to Israel. “This is a great moment. The Prime Minister is a great friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish community. He deserves all of the accolades he is getting.”
The close friendship between Israel and Canada was not lost on anybody in the visiting Canadian delegation of 200 people who arrived with Harper, and who were at dinner events hosted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Jewish National Fund.
As an article by Avi Baneihu in the Hebrew media newspaper “Sof Hashavua” noted, Canada under Harper’s leadership has stepped into the vacuum created by Obama’s foreign policy failures in the region. As he wrote, Canada’s close relationship with Israel will no doubt result in increased trade and economic co-operation between the two countries, in addition to political friendship.
As MP for Winnipeg South Joyce Bateman told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, “The Prime Minister’s visit to the Middle East was focused on increasing trade and investment and regional security. I am particularly proud to have joined the Prime Minister on this mission, following his historic speech to the Knesset that underscores the special friendship and shared values between Canada and Israel.
“The delegation was strengthened by many prominent Jewish community and business leaders from Winnipeg. As the focus of our mission was creating jobs and increasing trade, I am confident that the strong representation, especially from Manitoba’s respected business community, helped our Conservative Government achieve that objective.”
In a similiar vein, CIJA Chair David Koschitzky added that Harper’s visit “has served as a platform for deepening the bilateral relationship [between Israel and Canada] across a range of economic, scientific and strategic sectors.” Amir Gissin, former Israeli Consul General in Canada, who has recently founded Circleaders told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that he had recently founded Circleaders, a private business initiative to increase trade and business ties between Canada and Israel.
As Marty Morantz, one of the Winnipeg delegates on Harper’s mission told the Winnipeg Jewish Review “I was honoured to be a delegate to the Prime Minister’s official state visit to Israel. It was the experience of a lifetime. Seeing the Prime Minister address the Israeli Parliament was a very special moment. His speech was of historic importance. All Canadians should be proud of the relationship Canada has developed with Israel.”
Michael Kowlason, another one of the Winnipeg delegates added ” It was an honour to be asked to join Prime Minister Harper and our local MP Joyce Bateman as a member of the official delegation for this historic state visit. I was particularly honoured to have been introduced to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu by Prime Minister Harper and to have a brief chat with him. He certainly knew all about Winniepg and our strong vibrant Jewish community. Canadian Jews and the State of Israel have never had a better friend than Stephen Harper !.”
The Winnipeg Jewish contingent for PM Harper’s hisitoric visit to Israel was: David Asper, Howard Morry, Marsha Cowan, Bob Freedman, Sandy Shindleman, Robert Shindleman, David Kroft, Robert Gabor, Marty Morantz, Michael Kowalson, Ian Rabb, Dr. Catherine Chatterely, Rabi Shmuely and Adina Altein, and Gary Bronstone. (Editor’s note: This list of names is in no particular order).
HARPER GETS KEYS TO THE KNESSET
As Conservative MP Peter Kent for Thornhill told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, “Prime Minister Harper was handed the keys to the Knesset. You can’t get better than that.” (Editor’s note: I am not aware leader of any other country who has ever been given the keys to the Knesset). Additionally, Harper also was given an honourary doctorate from Tel-Aviv University in a special ceremony and Hula Valley’s visitor center laid a cornerstone in the Harper’s name, following Harper being honoured at the recent JNF Gala in Toronto Dec 1, 2013.
Kent also commented to the WJR on the fact that many of the MP’s from the visiting delegation were surprised and ” a bit taken aback’ that members of a national parliament would “heckle a visiting foreign leader” in the Knesset.
Kent was referring to heckling midway through Harper’s stirringly pro-Israel address to the Knesset on Monday evening. Two Arab MKs, Ahmad Tibi and Taleb Abu Arar, (who had also heckled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) when they spoke prior to Harper, pointed and screamed and then got up and left after the PM Harper castigated those who sought to brand Israel an Apartheid state. The two Arab MK’s shouted that Israel’s Arabs faced apartheid, citing the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev.
“Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state,” Harper said. “Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that: A state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish, as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history, that is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening.”
As Kent and others in the delegation noted, the fact that this heckling is allowed and tolerated is an example of how wide the breadth of freedom of speech is in Israel and the robustness of its democracy. This wouldn’t have occurred anywhere else in the Middle East.
After the walkout, and before Harper resumed his speech, much of the Knesset, led by Netanyahu, rose to its feet, and gave the Harper, the first Prime Minister of Canada to ever address the Knesset, a standing ovation.
The Arab MKs’ conduct contrasted strikingly with the attitude of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who hosted Harper on the second day of his visit to the region in Monday. Abbas offered words of welcome and expressed gratitude for Canada’s constructive role.
As Foreign Minister John Baird told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, “The Prime Minister’s Meeting with Abbas went well.”
Even if Harper is considered to be a good friend of Netanyahu’s, Canada’s role in the West Bank is appreciated since it gives substantial aid to the Palestinians. When he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem Harper also announced $66 million in aid for Palestinians.
OBAMA’S LESS THAN 50% “CHANCE FOR PEACE” LINE
Shortly after Harper’s visit began President Obama surprised some here by admitting that there is less than a 50% chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Michael Oren, who just completed his term as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and is now working for CNN, told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that Obama’s statement was to be contrasted with those of John Kerry who has been making statements on a different note, portraying the parties as having made progress and narrowing gaps. (As an aside, Oren has recently been in the news as saying he supports a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank, an idea that has become very unpopular in Israel given the Gazan example where Sharon’s unilateral disengagement led not to peace but to the rise of Hamas in Gaza)
Uzi Landau, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism (as an aside Israel’s tourism was the highest ever in 2013) told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that “in reality I would say that the chances for peace are much less than 50%, less than 10%). People do not understand that they are in the Middle East, not the Mid-west,” he noted.
Majid, a Muslim Jerusalemite, who gives tours of the Al Aksa Mosque and whose son completed a degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is as pessimistic as Landau. “I don’t like to talk about politics-I don’t vote in elections. There will never be a Palestinian state. There will not be peace here. They have been negotiating for over 21 years. Things have only gotten more difficult for both sides.”
Israelis working at the hotel reception desk were also pessimistic about John Kerry’s prospects of bringing about a peace agreement. This is the case especially after recent disclosures that the Shin Bet recently foiled planned attacks by Al-Queda to blow up the International Convention Centre in Jerusalem and the American Embassy in Tel-Aviv, which shows the degree to which radical forces are attempting to overtake the region.
Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset for Labour and Otzma, who attended a dinner event put on by the Jewish National Fund to host the Harper delegation (where Harper sang several songs including Niel Diamond’s Sweet Caroline), told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that the practices of the UNWRA in the Palestinian refugee camps are ” antithetical to achieving a two state solution.” This is the case since education in the UNWRA schools promotes the illusory notion that the descendants of Palestinian refugees are entitled to return to pre-67 Israel, “There needs to be a major reform in UNWRA,” Wilf noted, “especially since it is funded by the West” and “has become an obstacle to achieving a peaceful solution.” The descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war will ultimately need to be resettled in a future Palestinian state, not Israel.
There was a report in Debka file recently that Canada was offering to take in tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and resettle them in Canada. However, Jason Kenney in the Times of Israel denied this report saying Canada had “not made such a commitment.
Kenney told the Times of Israel, “The last time a Canadian foreign minister even intimated that, 10 years ago, he was burned in effigy in the West Bank, because they don’t want to create the suggestion that people are going to be resettled out of the region. So we’re very sensitive about that. We’re just offering our good offices to facilitate the process should there be an agreement. We understand the complexity of the issues. We come to that whole issue with clean hands. We happen to be the largest per capita contributor to the UNHCR and recipient of resettled refugees. We have a lot of credibility on refugees should it be required.”
PERES UNDERMINES NETANYAHU AND HARPER
The day before Harper was set to leave Israel to go to Jordan, President Shimon Peres set off a political storm here when Yisrael Hayom reported on its front page that Peres has said in private conversations with government officials in recent weeks that Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition of a Jewish state is “unnecessary.”
Peres’s comments are at odds not only with Nertanyahu’s position but also with Harper’s
“Canada supports Israel fundamentally because it is right to do so,” Harper said. “We stand up for a free and democratic Jewish state [emphasis added].”
After the speech, Netanyahu lauded Canada for supporting a real peace that he said has “at its roots the Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish national state.”
Political commentator Dan Margolit in Yisrael Hayom opined that Peres’s position has damaged Israel, and the fact that the Palestinians refuse to recognize the State as a Jewish State is because they refuse end the conflict and to give up claims to ultimately take over all of pre-67 Israel.
A colorful sarcastic Jerusalem cab driver Moshe Dago commented to the Winnipeg Jewish Review on Peres’s reported remarks, “Who is Peres anyway? He never won any elections in Israel. He lost them all. The average person on the street doesn’t care about what Peres says. Peres was born in Poland, not Israel… Maybe he thinks the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Polish state! I was born in Israel. I want the Palestinians to recognize this country as a Jewish state.”
Editor’s Update: Jan 26, 2014-Just today I was in the Israeli government press office in Jerusalem and one of the employees responsible for dealing with the European foreign press asked me. “Were you here when Harper was? He is Israel’s best friend in the world. He and the Czechoslovakian Prime Minister.”