Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was a smash hit a few weeks ago on the radio program of conservative US commentator Mark Levin, when he took his customary aggressive stand against Hamas and the Palestinians. The Harper/Baird position plays very well in the USA. Ironically, it seems to serve both the Obama administration and his right wing opponents.
Canada’s position is more pro-Israel than any other western country, including the USA. What explains this?
I have little doubt that Harper, and perhaps Baird, too, really believe that Israel is an outpost of democracy in a benighted part of the world.
But the personal beliefs of any prime minister are not enough to explain policies. After all, Harper had to overcome his personal aversion to “communist” China because Canadian politics, and in particular business interests, demanded it. So why does our political establishment (including the Liberals and NDP) allow Harper to take such extreme positions on the Israel/Palestine question, particularly since almost all of his foreign policy advisors are unhappy with it.
Some people argue that it’s because of the “Israel lobby”, with its money and its ability to swing Jewish voters behind the Conservatives. That is no doubt part of the story. The Israel lobby, headed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is well organized and well financed. But there are only about 350,000 Jews in Canada, or just over 1% of the Canadian population. Even if Zionist Jews have influence well beyond their numbers, that is certainly a long way from explaining Canadian policy.
Another element often cited is the rise of Evangelical Christianity. In her book “The Armageddon Factor” Canadian author Marci MacDonald, outlines the significant rise in the influence of Christian Zionists on Parliament Hill. According to Evangelical sources, there are as many as 4 million Evangelical Christians in Canada, or about 12% of the population. Is this enough? Perhaps….
But one factor that often gets overlooked is how well the Harper/Baird position on Israel/Palestine plays in the USA.
In elaborating foreign policy, every Canadian government must keep a close eye on the USA. That doesn’t mean we have to do exactly what the USA wants, (sometimes we don’t – e.g. Cuba and our refusal to join the war on Iraq) but we have to pay pretty close attention to it. Straying too far from what the USA wants can have severe consequences (e.g. the Bomarc missile crisis and the fall of the Diefenbaker government).
However, it would appear that today, an extremely pro-Israel Canadian position suits both the Obama administration and his Republican critics, for different reasons.
It suits Obama because it allows him to appear as a comparative moderate. When Palestine applied for “observer state” status at the UN, for example, the USA and Canada were 2 of only 7 countries that voted against the motion. However, it was John Baird who hustled down to New York to make a fiery denunciation of the Palestinian application for UN membership. This allowed Obama’s foreign secretary to keep safely in the background, while voting against all the same.
At the same time, however, the Baird/Harper position is also extremely popular with the Republican Party, and particular its right wing. At the end of July, Baird was greeted as a hero by Mark Levin, host of the conservative program “The Right Scoop”, who used Baird’s extreme pro-Israel statements as a way to bash Obama for being weak.
The Harper/Baird position on Israel/Palestine puts Canada at odds with most other western countries. But a combination of internal and external forces means that Prime Minister Harper seems to be able to pursue his own version of justice without much opposition.
However, divergences between the USA and Israel are starting to widen. How long will it be before Canada will come under increasing pressure to fall closer to the western consensus?