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Prof. Reg Whitaker examines why Harper administration continues to support Israel in the face of growing international condemnation

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, is becoming known as Israel’s biggest supporter. He’s even given a speech before Israel’s parliament, the first before the Knesset by a Canadian prime minister. While protests rage across Canada against the Israeli assault on Gaza, Harper’s support has remained unwavering. In a statement, he said, quote,

“Canada is unequivocally behind Israel. We support its right to defend itself, by itself, against these terror attacks, and urge Hamas to immediately cease their indiscriminate attacks on innocent Israeli civilians.”

Now joining us from Canada to discuss the Canadian government’s support in their position on Israel is our guest, Reg Whitaker. Reg is a distinguished research professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, and he specializes in national security issues.

Thanks for joining us, Reg.


DESVARIEUX: So, Reg, there have been protests in every major city in Canada against his Israel’s actions. And on the other side of that, Prime Minister Harper is declaring his undying support of Israel even as Palestinians’ civilian death toll is mounting. Can you just give us some context here? Why is Harper so loyal to Israel?

WHITAKER: He certainly is loyal to Israel. In fact, Canada is closer to Israel, I think, then just about any other country in the world. There’s no daylight between the Israeli government position and the Canadian government position. It has been one of the leading elements of Canadian foreign policy under the Harper Conservative government that the support for Israel is simply unequivocal, as he has often said.

The explanation for that–clearly there is a political reason for it. There is the Canadian Jewish vote, which is not a large numerically in the overall picture, but is strategically placed in Toronto and Montreal. And in fact, by taking this kind of very volubly pro-Israeli position, much more so than any previous Canadian government has had, that Harper has been able, in fact, to swing that vote to the extent that in the last election, 2011, that in fact he was able to detach a number of seats in Toronto which had been traditionally liberal and were now in fact gone over into the Conservative column. And it really was that appeal to the Jewish vote.

And it’s interesting that in the United States, the Obama administration, which has shown some distance here and there from the Israeli government–and it’s certainly reached a level of unpopularity in Israel itself–that we know that Benjamin Netanyahu really wanted to defeat Obama, would have loved to have seen Mitt Romney elected president in the last election. But, in fact–of course, Obama was reelected. But one of the elements in that reelection was that three-quarters of American Jewish voters voted for Obama, despite all the complaints that he was supposedly anti-Israeli. In Canada, on the other hand, the Conservatives now have the majority of the Jewish-Canadian vote, and that’s a powerful inducement.

Beyond that, clearly these people really do believe what they say. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And in a sense it’s a little bit like what has happened in the United States, where you have the Republican right and the Christian–the evangelicals, who have become very volubly pro-Israeli, and we’re seeing the same phenomenon, I think, in Canada.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But beyond the cultural and political battles that are taking place, I want to get a sense of the relationship between Canada and Israel. Essentially, what does Canada get in return for this unwavering support?

WHITAKER: Nothing in particular. But I don’t think it’s economic particularly. I mean, there’s always been relatively close ties, just as there are between the United States and Israel, and some of those are economic. But I don’t think that really lies at the heart of this, that previous Canadian governments, while being friendly towards Israel, seeing Israel as an ally, etc., etc., were also able to take a more nuanced and neutral stance and appear somewhat more as honest brokers, potentially, in any kind of peace negotiations. That has been lost entirely with the Harper government. I mean, they have no credibility whatsoever, other than as a kind of cheerleaders for the Netanyahu government. And I really don’t think that there’s anything other than the political interests that lie behind that and the ideological kind of attraction that it seems that Israel has brought to bear on the North American right.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned their credibility, because I want to talk about public opinion. And do you think that there’s a sort of tide that’s turning in terms of public opinion moving against Stephen Harper’s support of Israel? ‘Cause as I mentioned in the introduction, there have been protests in every major Canadian city. Do you think there’s going to be a change in the way Canada does business with Israel in term of the public’s opinion about how it should be dealing with Israel?

WHITAKER: Yeah, I think there has been in Canada for some time, after there have been another Western countries–in the United States, in Western Europe–a growing skepticism about Israeli claims with regard to the Palestinians. And I think the long, now many decade long history of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the impression of Israel not as the David but as in fact the Goliath that is an occupying military power over a captive people and so on, that has been growing in public opinion. That may be, in fact, one of the reasons why the Israeli lobby in Canada has become so much more active than it was in the past and so much more successful at really making–and not just the Conservative government, but I have to say that the opposition has been, the two opposition parties have been notably silent. They really would just like this whole Gaza thing to go away.

DESVARIEUX: Reg, can you give me some specific examples of those Canadian lobbying forces that you describe?

WHITAKER: Oh, sure. There was in fact a change in the last few years, where the previous organizations which had tended to be the general spokespersons for the Jewish community were in fact superseded by a new organization which specifically put into its name advocacy on behalf of Israel and Jewish affairs. So there was a concerted attempt to really focus their efforts on making the point that, as they see it, certainly–and it seems to have certainly paid off in terms of the Conservative–not only the prime minister, but his foreign minister and other leading Conservatives–to say that if you’re critical of Israel, that this is really an example of anti-Semitism and to sort of link those two issues together and a kind of uncritical support of Israel as being bona fides of not being anti-Semitic. That has made some inroads in the political class. And I say it’s made it in the opposition parties as well, who are fearful of being labeled anti-Semitic if they are in fact critical of Israel.

But I don’t think that it’s in fact very typical of Canadian public opinion at large, which I say has been moving into greater degrees of skepticism about Israel over the last few years. And so there’s a disjuncture between the politicians and the public.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I want to turn the corner here and just ask you a final question just very quickly. What would rational foreign policy then look like? If both sides keep talking about peace, what role could Canada play in promoting that peace?

WHITAKER: Well, first of all, they would have to kind of go back and start over again and not begin with the view which has been, you know, just over the last little while that anything that Israel does is in fact justified by the fact that Hamas is sending rockets into Israel, that there is no sense of proportionality.

I think what we really have to–what–a more rational foreign policy here would be to begin with the premise that the occupation of, the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is in fact illegal, which in fact the Canadian government does not deny, and that in one way or another, a return to the ’67 borders is the necessary precondition for any kind of solution, with a two-state solution or whatever. But more than anything else and what is–a country like Canada, which is not a superpower, can play and did play in the past was to be the honest broker. And that means coming at these issues not from a partisan perspective in the first instance, but coming at it simply from the position of a government that is trying to do what it can to help a solution to a problem which is really quite catastrophic in terms of its human cost, which we’ve seen daily.

DESVARIEUX: Reg Whitaker, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time and analysis.

WHITAKER: Okay. Thank you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Reg Whitaker is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York University in Toronto and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria. He has published extensively about Canadian national security and foreign policy issues, and on the impact of domestic lobbies on Canadian and Western policies in the Middle East.