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Harper Says He'll Support Israel Even If It Hurts Canada Politically

Stephen Harper addresses the 65th General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 23, 2010.

Stephen Harper says he’ll take a forceful stand against anti-Israel rhetoric no matter the political cost to his government at international organizations such as the United Nations and the Francophonie.

The prime minister delivered the opening speech Monday at a two-day conference on anti-Semitism, taking place on Parliament Hill.

He noted Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a UN security council seat this fall, saying he believes the country is morally obligated to stand up against those who would attack Israel.

“And I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations or any other international forum, the easy thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israel rhetoric, to pretend it is just being even-handed, and to excuse oneself with the label of honest broker.

“There are, after all, a lot more votes — a lot more — in being anti-Israel than in taking a stand.”

The reference to “honest broker” was a thinly veiled swipe at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Ignatieff attacked the Conservative government in a speech this month for sacrificing Canada’s ability to command respect on the issue of peace in the Middle East. Ignatieff said Harper has used Israel as a wedge issue in Canadian politics, and called for a return to a time when Canada was seen as an honest broker in the world.

In a later speech to the same conference, Ignatieff mocked Harper for trying to portray his failure to win a seat on the Security Council as the price to be paid for his unstinting support for Israel.

“To claim a defeat as a moral victory seems to me to be a mistake,” Ignatieff said.

He pointed out that it’s the Security Council that will determine whether sanctions are imposed on Iran, whose Holocaust-denying president refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“If Canada wishes to defend Israel against Iran, as it should, it would’ve been nice to be on the Security Council of the United Nations,” Ignatieff said.

Ignatieff reiterated what Liberals have long touted as a balanced approach to achieving peace in the Middle East: recognition of two separate states —Israel and Palestine — with justice and security for both.

Nevertheless he added: “Let us also be very clear. A democratic state like Canada cannot be neutral as between a democratic state and a terrorist organization. There is no honest broker between those two.”

One group that was not involved in the anti-Semitism conference, Independent Jewish Voices, criticized the Conservative government for stifling debate on Israel.

“As Jews, we know that the real threat is from the new McCarthyism, and not from so-called new anti-Semitism. We believe that it is legitimate and ethically necessary for Canadians of conscience to criticize Israeli human-rights abuses and to support non-violent remedies,” spokesperson Diana Ralph said in a statement.

“We are calling on Canadian MPs to reject any attempts to silence or criminalize legitimate criticism of Israel, and to defend free speech in Canada.”

Harper said Israel may be subjected to fair criticism, and noted that Israel subjects itself to such criticism as part of a healthy, democratic debate. But he spoke of a “solemn duty” to defend the vulnerable and challenge the aggressor at home and abroad.

“Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israel mob tells us all too well, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.”

— with files from Joan Bryden