Prime minister steers Canada on a pro-Israel course

One night in August 2006, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was speaking at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal’s Israel Emergency Campaign in a Toronto hotel. Before an audience of 2,500, Krauthammer extolled the virtues of those leaders who were supporting Israel in the conflict then under way with Hezbollah in Lebanon. He singled out for praise Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was showing great leadership, he said, in openly siding with Israel.

At the mere mention of Harper, Krauthammer’s audience burst into furious applause, as though its collective gratitude for the prime minister had been articulated for the first time.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses a reception for 100 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

As prime minister, Harper has transformed Canadian policy toward Israel and the Middle East. Abandoning its longstanding even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Canada has become arguably the world’s most pro-Israel country. From being the first world leader to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority in 2006 when it was taken over by Hamas, to speaking out against growing global anti-Semitism, Harper has embraced Israel as no Canadian leader before him.

“It is hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days,” gushed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2010.

While Harper’s pro-Israel bona fides are not in doubt, his motivations are less clear. Harper may not stand to gain politically with such a passionately pro-Israel stance. In a country of nearly 34 million, Canadian Jews number only 315,000 — and that figure is declining.

In contrast, the number of Canadian Muslims is expected to nearly triple in the next 20 years, from about 940,000 in 2010 to nearly 2.7 million in 2030, according to the Pew Research Center. There are also nearly 500,000 Canadian Arabs, a somewhat overlapping group. Clearly if there is an emerging demographic to be captured for partisan purposes, Jews are not it.

Of course, sheer numbers are only one measure of a minority’s clout.

“Canada’s Israel lobby is every bit as powerful as America’s,” says John Mearsheimer, co-author of the book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” However, Canada’s national elections are publicly funded, making financial contributions far less important than in the United States.

For all of Harper’s success in making himself attractive to a broad coalition of voters in Canada, he emerged from a distinct social and political milieu that might be more familiar to Americans than to Canadians. Born in Toronto, he moved soon after high school to work in the oil industry in the western province of Alberta. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at the University of Calgary, and he represented the local riding, or county subdivision, in parliament.

Though most Americans think of Canada as a European-style social democracy, Harper’s Alberta shares a political and economic climate more in tune with pro-business U.S. states. The oil-rich province boasts Canada’s strongest support for loose gun laws, opposition to same-sex marriage and support for the death penalty.

In 1997, Harper called Canada “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” In 2003, Harper co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling Canada’s decision to opt out of the Iraq War a mistake — a position that was highly unpopular in other parts of the country.

Harper’s strong feelings for Israel can be seen as consistent with his distinctly conservative background and world view. He believes Israel is a bulwark of democracy and Western civilization warring against terrorists in a region governed by autocrats. The prime minister said at an Ottawa conference on anti-Semitism in 2010 that he supports Israel “not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us … that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.”