In an op-ed in the National Post, Stanley H. Hartt argues that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's close relationship with Israel will give Canada more influence in the peace process with the Palestinians, not less. While many see Canada's role as one of "honest broker", Hartt says that it is right to support a fellow democracy in the Middle East, and in any case, "the role of intermediary is occupied" by the United States. Hartt, who accompanied the Prime Minister on a January visit to Israel, says that as Israel's one "unconditional" friend, Canada could be in the best position to urge Israel toward an agreement. This article is excerpted from a longer piece in the April issue of Inside Policy, the magazine of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

By Stanley H. Hartt, April 10, 2014

Much to the consternation of many Canadian observers and foreign service officers, Stephen Harper pays little heed to notions of Canada's "traditional" role as "honest broker" in the Middle East. Rather, he has carved out a refreshing approach for a world leader who wants to make an actual difference in resolving one of the globe's most intractable international disputes.

Harper's starting point, expressed during his visit to Israel earlier this year, is one of principle: Israel is the only functioning democracy in an area beset by conflict since 1948. Democracies which do not support one another increase the dangers to themselves.

It is hard to pinpoint precisely when the notion that tiny Israel, under constant threat and repeated attack from across its fragile borders, began to be singled out as the obstacle to peace. In the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel had not yet been burdened by the opprobrium that subsequently surrounded its efforts to enhance its security.

International reservations gained momentum as Israel dealt with suicide bombings, rocket attacks and continued threats to its borders. The incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, the two intifadas, and Israel's settlements policy were not seen as the minimal efforts at self-defence which any country in similar circumstances would take to preserve its existence, but as intransigence.

The standard to which some hold Israel has taken on an air of one-sided bias, not even-handedness. As the Prime Minister noted in his Knesset remarks, what should we call "criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself while systematically ignoring — or excusing — the violence and oppression all around it?"

Journalistic attempts to underscore the size of the Prime Minister's delegation, or the alleged political motivation behind it, completely missed the sincerity of the emotions conveyed in his private prayer at the Western Wall, the poignancy of his wreath-laying at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the honour of lending his name to a bird sanctuary in northern Galilee, and the gravitas of receiving a doctorate from Tel Aviv University. They asked repeatedly why he did not reproach his hosts for strategies perceived as making peace more difficult, assuming that remonstrating his hosts was what Canada needed to do to "position" itself to play a conciliatory role.

But Canada has never been the natural international go-between to urge the parties to resolve this conflict. For decades, that role has belonged to the United States. From the Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn in 1993, to the Camp David Summit in 2000, to the July, 2002, "Road Map" for peace, to the direct talks initiated by secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the U.S. has owned this process and is the only nation with the influence and power to instill the political will required for success.

But Mr. Harper has not developed his principled stance merely because the role of intermediary is occupied. What the hand-wringers hoping for a Canadian "honest broker" function are missing is that mediators do not proceed by telling both sides to a dispute that they are right. In fact, successful mediators do the very opposite. In any circumstance requiring mediation, the third-party assisting the parties to reach agreement has no power to force them to concede anything (especially highly-charged political concessions like those on the table here). A mediator needs to persuade the parties why they should want to resolve matters for their own sake. It is by stressing the need to make concessions, not by endorsing the negotiators' pretentions, that any successful intermediary generates progress.

Mr. Harper's approach is far more subtle. Should momentum develop towards an historic breakthrough, Mr. Harper will be the one unconditional friend of Israel and its prime minister who can quietly and privately convey views which might be suspect coming from anyone else on where the path to harmony might lie. That sort of trust is not gained by public criticisms of a friend's failures or by embracing the doctrine of moral equivalence.

National Post

Stanley H. Hartt is a lawyer, lecturer, businessman and former civil servant. He was part of the Canadian delegation on the recent visit to Israel. This piece is adapted from an article in the April edition of Inside Policy, the magazine of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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