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Yves Engler: PM Harper has moved Canada to become the closest ally of the Israeli hard right

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our series of interviews about Canadian foreign policy. And now joining us from Ottawa is Yves Engler.

Yves is a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy. And he now joins us, as I said, from Ottawa. Thanks for joining us again, Yves.

YVES ENGLER, AUTHOR: Thanks for having me.

JAY: So this segment, we’re going to talk about Canada and Israel. Prime Minister Harper has made a point or one of his pillars of his foreign policy an even closer relationship between Canada and Israel than there already was under previous governments. Tell us a bit about that.

ENGLER: Yeah. The Harper government has made Canada the most pro-Israel country in the world, diplomatically at least. And there’s many different elements to that pro-Israel policy. There’s deepening ties between the Canadian military and the Israeli military, including with Canadian companies involved in weapons production and Israeli companies, a lot of that facilitated by the government. You have numerous different UN votes where the Canadian government is the only country or one of few countries supporting Israeli position against world opinion.

In the most recent Israeli attacks against Gaza, John Baird, the foreign minister, came out very strong in support of Israeli policy—a complete blank check, even more of a blank check than the Obama administration. And you have him in a whole series of other levels in terms of deepening ties between the—or, should I say, allowing Canadian charities, registered Canadian charities to support the settlements by financial support to the settlements in the West Bank that are contrary to international law. And that’s something that’s somewhat distinct from previous governments.

And at the same time that they’re allowing registered Canadian charities that can provide a tax writeoff to donors to support the settlements, they have actually pursued other charities that support Palestinian organizations. So one charity, a Toronto-based group called IRFAN and a largely Muslim charity, had its charitable status cut off by the Canada Revenue Agency because they were supporting orphans in Gaza and had sent a dialysis machine to a hospital in Gaza, the hospital in Gaza run by the health ministry, the health ministry under Hamas’s control since Hamas won elections in Gaza.

So you have this really stark double standard between on one hand you can support Israeli charities that support settlements, that support the Israeli military, receive a tax writeoff from the Canadian government; on the other hand, if you support a charity that’s supporting orphans or a hospital in Gaza, you have your charitable status cut off. And, in fact, the board members of this Toronto-based charity, IRFAN, actually have hanging over their heads the possibility of being pursued criminally. So they might actually find themselves sitting in jail for supporting orphans at a hospital in Gaza. So you have many different elements to this pro-Israel policy that it really is a pillar of the Conservatives’ foreign policy.

JAY: And to what extent does that differ than previous liberal governments?

ENGLER: Well, in my book Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, I go through the whole history. There’s a long history of Canada being very sympathetic towards Zionism before 1948, the creation of Israel, and subsequently since 1948. And so Canada’s always been a strong supporter of Zionist ideas going back to sort of British imperial and Christian biblical reasons. But what the Conservatives have done is they have deepened it. You know what I said in talks: sometimes the Chrétien government, the previous government, may be the fourth most pro-Israel country in the world. Harper has made Canada the most pro-Israel country.

JAY: Yeah. I joked last time, maybe the title of your book should be The Uglier Canadian, ’cause it’s not that this is a new policy; it’s just more intensified.

ENGLER: That’s exactly it. And the Israel—I mean, it’s across all the different issues where they’re intensifying the more sort of pro-corporate, pro-imperial policy. Israel is one that’s pretty—particularly stark, in the sense that at least previous Liberal governments would support UN resolutions that, you know, supported Palestinian rights. This government refuses to even do that. So the previous Liberal governments had, you know, a whole bunch of different forms of relationship with Israel that were effectively taking Israel’s side, but at least sort of publicly they would, you know, give a nominal support to a UN resolution. This government has refused to do that, and they’ve deepened those ties.

One of the other elements of deepening the ties that’s—is new is the role that Canada’s played in building up a Palestinian security force in the West Bank. In the words of Canada’s ambassador in Israel, Jon Allen, to ensure that the Palestinian Authority under Abbas’s rule maintains control of the West Bank against Hamas, he says that very explicitly: the point of building a Palestinian security force was to support Abbas versus Hamas in an internal Palestinian political fight.

But more broadly, the initiative of building up the Palestinian security force, which is overseen by a U.S. general, is to basically solidify the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to support the most compliant Palestinian political faction in the West Bank. And Canada, that’s what most of Canada’s $300 million aid—five-year aid program to the Palestinians is going towards is building up this Palestinian security force, where even Human Rights Watch has said that Western governments shouldn’t support the Palestinian security force in the West Bank because it seems so repressive. And the Harper government has made that sort of a pillar in terms of its support for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

So it’s really—on all levels it’s taken a pro-Israel policy in terms of aid, in terms of charities, in terms of diplomatic support, in terms of participating in Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The list is long.

JAY: And to what extent is this being driven by a coherent foreign policy vision? Or how much of this has to do with simply pragmatic Canadian politics? The Jewish community and Jewish financial contributors traditionally have supported the Liberal Party, or even the NDP, not so much the Conservatives. How much was this a domestic political play?

ENGLER: Yeah. I mean, I think part—the Conservative Party are the people who believe most strongly in, you know, Western dominance of the world. And generally, those who believe in Western dominance of the world tend to be pro-Israel, ’cause Israel’s seen as the sort of Western outpost in the Middle East. And that’s an idea that goes back—a longstanding idea in the history of Canadian foreign policy. And I quote—in other books, I quote Lester Pearson in 1952 saying that Israel is the pivot of Western defense in the Middle East [crosstalk]

JAY: And for our American viewers who might not remember—and I’ll bet you there’s a lot of Canadian, younger viewers who may not know, Lester Pearson’s the former Canadian prime minister, a Liberal Party prime minister, who also played a pretty big role in the Suez crisis at the time.

ENGLER: He’s the preeminent Canadian foreign-policy decision-maker in the post-World War II period. For, like, 25 years he was probably the most important sort of foreign-policy decision-maker. And so he makes it really clear that they see Israel as a Western outpost going back to ’52, and actually even before the creation of Israel. So there’s that element.

But I think that there is an element in terms of wooing the right-wing sectors of the Jewish community, in terms of pushing them toward supporting the Conservatives. I personally think that’s overstated, in terms of understanding the Harper government’s support for Israel. There’s—the Jewish community: 1.3 percent of the Canadian public; and there’s very few ridings where the Jewish vote is of much significance. I think as important as wooing sectors of the Jewish community towards the Conservative Party is the fact that the Harper government is close to evangelical Christian movement and would like to really replicate what the Republicans have done in the U.S. in terms of a sort of coalition of sort of social conservative, evangelical Christians with a very pro big business kind of orientation. And so for Harper, pro-Israel policy is something that is—it mobilizes the base of sort of Christian Zionists, and it’s popular in those sectors.

JAY: And just really quickly for some viewers, especially younger viewers who may not understand, why are the evangelicals, at or at least a section of evangelicals—I don’t think we can talk about that monolithically—but why are they so pro-militantly Israel?

ENGLER: Well, I mean, there is different reasons. At the most extreme end, there are evangelical Christians who believe that all Jews need to return to the Middle East for the second coming of Jesus, and then the rapture and end times. That’s at the most extreme end. At more sort of softer ends, it’s just that, you know, the Bible refers to that part of the world as being a Jewish area, and so just the general sort of—the more literally you read the Bible, you tend to—the more sort of sympathy towards Zionism you tend to have. That’s a little bit simplistic, but—so—. And the Conservatives are very close with the evangelical Christian movement, which is not as big as in the U.S., where it’s something—you know, up to 25 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. But it’s about 10 percent of the Canadian public. But that is something that’s unique about Harper’s government, being that closely tied in with this sort of religious right that’s clearly on the ascendance in some sense.

JAY: And for Harper himself, how much is this an alliance with Canadian evangelical right? Or how much has he won himself? I mean, to what extent do evangelical ideas influence his own thinking?

ENGLER: I think they influence [incompr.] I mean, he’s part—he’s in a church, a very, you know, evangelical church. He is a member of a church that espouses a lot of these ideas. I’m personally of the opinion that he is more of a very calculated politician and that his even joining of the church is probably as much to do with, you know, a calculated plan to become the head of the party, knowing that a big chunk of the activists of the old Reform Party were sort of Christian right kind of activists.

But I think he’s—also is a believer. And I think that it’s not just Harper, but, you know, someone like Stockwell Day, a former minister, was clearly a real serious believer in this stuff, influential minister. And a number of other ministers have been, you know, pretty close to these ideas and, you know, personally believed in this stuff beyond the sort of narrow political-electoral calculation.

JAY: And how much pushback, if any, is there coming from the Canadian professional technocrat, if you will, foreign-policy establishment who traditionally have thought of Canada being the defender of international law and made the argument you shouldn’t be too pro-Israel or you’ll lose any possibility of being, quote-unquote, an honest broker in the conflict? Not that Canada ever really was, but at any rate, they wanted to appear so. Harper has lost all vestiges of that.

ENGLER: Yeah. I mean, just a couple of days ago, the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East put out a statement from a former long 37-year Canadian diplomat criticizing the Conservatives’ recent position on the bombing of Gaza. There has been some pushback from official sort of traditional foreign affairs bureaucracy.

But part of the problem with that kind of pushback is they focus on that kind of criticism, that, you know, we have to return to the good old days when we were an honest broker. They very rarely are willing to actually criticize what Israel’s doing in any sort of significant way or any profound way, or really substantially, you know, criticize the fact that Canadian foreign policy has been clearly oriented towards a, you know, Israeli government that has been dispossessing Palestinians not just, you know, in recent years, but going back for decades and decades. And so the pushback is there.

I think if anything, the pushback at the grassroots level is kind of more interesting, and the reality is is as, you know, terrible as Conservative foreign policy on the question of Israel is, the level of opposition to what they’re doing is infinitely greater. You can go back to 1947, where Canadian diplomats played a fairly important role in the creation, you know, in the partition plan at the United Nations and sort of gave the Zionist movement the cover that ultimately allows them to expel over 80 percent of Palestinians and, you know, basically an ethnic cleansing, if you like, 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians driven from their homes, and Canada played a fairly important diplomatic role there. And there was basically no opposition to that Canadian policy, from what I can tell, in Canada.

Fast forward 60 years later and you have 10,000 people in the streets demonstrating against the Conservatives’ support for the bombing of Gaza a couple of years ago, and more recently a few thousand people. So there’s this incredible growth of knowledge on this issue. We’re still very far from being able to impact policy or to be of a determined policy, but there is this incredible growth of solidarity activism on the issue. And that, in fact, is what to me is more sort of exciting or interesting in terms of that versus the sort of official foreign affairs, you know, bureaucratic criticism, which just tends to be fairly limited on that sort of moral criticism.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Yves. And we’re going to continue our series of interviews with Yves Engler on Canadian foreign policy. And if you want to see more work like this, don’t forget we’re in our year-end fundraising campaign. Every dollar you donate gets matched until we reach $100,000. And over here or somewhere down here is a Donate button. If you don’t click on that, we can’t do this.


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Yves Engler is a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian - Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy, and previously he published The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and Canada in Haiti: Waging War on The Poor Majority