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Israel comes to Canada looking for 'validation'

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

POOL/Jonathan Nackstrand/Pool/Reuters

Last month it was the release of a joint Canada-Israel postage stamp; this weekend it is the visit to Canada of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that is putting a stamp of approval on the relationship between the two countries.

Not since 1994, when the late Yitzhak Rabin visited Jean Chrétien (for the second time in less than a year), has an Israeli prime minister travelled to Canada.

"This visit is long overdue," said Mr. Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev. "The Prime Minister is glad to have the opportunity to reaffirm our countries' strong relationship."

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Things have not always been so pleasant, however. Canada's relationship with Israel cooled markedly in 1997, when Mossad used forged Canadian passports in an attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshaal, a Hamas political official who has since become leader of the Palestinian resistance movement. Mr. Netanyahu, then in his first term as Israel's prime minister, approved the operation. He later apologized.

After years of chill during which Canada stressed the need for a Palestinian state and called on Israel to respect international law in the occupied territories, relations thawed with the accession of Paul Martin as Liberal prime minister in 2003. That's when Canada began voting in support of Israel in several key ballots at the United Nations.

But if relations between Israel and Canada were warm under Mr. Martin's watch, they became outright cozy with the election of Stephen Harper.

Within days of the Conservative Prime Minister's own victory in January of 2006, Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Canada, won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. Almost immediately, Mr. Harper announced that Ottawa would have no further dealings with the Palestinian Authority. Canada was the first country to take this action.

Since then, Mr. Harper has made his support for Israel clear, first during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and again during Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza more than two years later. In both conflicts Mr. Harper argued that Israel, led by then-prime-minister Ehud Olmert, was engaged in a defensive campaign to halt attacks on its people.

Mr. Harper's government was also the first to boycott last year's Durban II conference against racism, arguing it was a forum for criticizing Israel, and it joined with the Netanyahu government in condemning last year's Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict. Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge, had been tasked by the United Nations with determining if there was a case of war crimes to be made against Israel. Canada concluded that his report unfairly attributed more blame to Israel than to Hamas.

"Mr. Harper is a clear friend of Israel's," Mr. Regev said, "and we appreciate this very much.

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"He typifies the best of our relationship back to 1947," Mr. Regev added, referring to Canada's support for the UN plan to partition Mandate Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state.

The two prime ministers will have an opportunity to become better acquainted on Sunday, when Mr. Netanyahu and his wife Sarah are scheduled to spend several informal hours with Mr. Harper and his wife Laureen in Ottawa.

Prior to his arrival in the capital Sunday afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu will be meeting privately with members of the Jewish community in Toronto, as well as a number of selected members of the media. The only near-public event at which Mr. Netanyahu will appear is the kick-off of this year's annual Walk for Israel through the streets of Toronto. The opening ceremony will take place inside a building on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition before a carefully screened group of participants.

On Monday, in the one official day of the visit, Mr. Netanyahu and members of his cabinet will meet with Canadian officials.

The agenda is expected to include bilateral issues, such as the expansion of trade and the joint commercialization of high-tech capacity in both countries, as well as regional matters such as the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Iran's nuclear program.

The Israeli leader "is looking to Canada for validation and confirmation regarding the threat posed by Iran," said Moshe Ronen, chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee. "He wants and needs Canada to articulate a view that Iran represents the most dangerous threat to global security and that the international community cannot allow itself to be distracted from addressing the threat it represents."

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The last time Mr. Netanyahu visited Canada was as a private citizen in 2002. The visit was memorable for the speech Mr. Netanyahu was not allowed to give, owing to student protests (and police concerns), at Concordia University in Montreal. That speech, published the next day in The Globe and Mail, contained a message not unlike the one the Israeli Prime Minister is delivering this time - except the country that posed the greatest threat to Israel then was Iraq.

Protesting against the Netanyahu visit Monday will be a number of demonstrators who object to recent decisions by the Harper government to cut off aid to several organizations that provide assistance to Palestinians.

Most recently, the International Development Research Centre, a federal Crown corporation, cancelled a contract with an Arab-Israeli research group after a complaint from an Israeli group that monitors non-governmental organizations.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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