Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday admitted that notwithstanding his country’s effusive support for the Jewish state, a support rooted in a “fundamental Canadian ethic,” Ottawa had longstanding concerns about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
In a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the third day of his landmark visit to Israel, Harper said that “of course” his country has voiced concerns over settlement building “on many occasions. Leaders on both sides know what Canada’s view on this is.”
However, despite these differences, Israel was assured of his country’s full support, Harper added, noting that his country recognized an ethical obligation to embrace the world’s small minorities, such as the Jews.
“I raised the issue of settlements privately. I am not here to single out Israel for criticism. There are more than enough to do that, they don’t need me. I find it interesting that yesterday in the Palestinian Authority no one asked me to single out the PA for any criticism about governance or human rights, I’m only asked to single out Israel.”
Harper was following up a speech at the Knesset on Monday night in which he called support for Israel a matter of principle — amid heckles by Arab MKs.
“When someone is a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them, not single them out for criticism,” he said. “That is a fundamental Canadian ethic, which is why many Canadians understand the statement I’m making.”
On the prospects of a peace agreement, Harper said he remains “convinced there is a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that peace can be achieved.”
Addressing reporters, Netanyahu said that he was committed to making “the quest for [Israeli-Palestinian] peace a success” and that “Canada and Israel want to see a Middle East that is more secure and more free.”
He also warned the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers not to forget past lessons, amid a rise in violence along the territory’s border with Israel, including a steady increase in the number of rocket attacks in recent weeks.
“We foil terrorist attacks when we identify that they are in the making and we respond against those who attack us,” Netanyahu said. “If Hamas and the other terror organizations forgot this lesson, they will learn it again the hard way and very soon.”
His comments came a day after terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired three rockets at Israel’s Western Negev region, while rockets fired from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula landed near the resort city of Eilat.
Netanyahu also spoke of the Iranian nuclear program, which Tehran scaled back Monday as its interim agreement with world powers came into effect.
“Iran’s military nuclear program must be stopped, and Iran’s military nuclear program will be stopped,” he said, although he didn’t elaborate as to how that goal would be achieved. “A nuclear armed Iran would not just endanger Israel — it would threaten the peace and security of our region. It would give Iran’s terrorist proxies a nuclear umbrella. It would launch a multilateral nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it could turn the Middle East into a nuclear tinderbox.”
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu and Harper witnessed the signing of the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership Memorandum of Understanding, which “reaffirms the close and special friendship that underpins the bilateral relationship, and lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries,” touching on “energy, security, international aid and development, innovation, and the promotion of human rights globally,” according to a statement from Harper’s office.
They also set a February 3-9 date for negotiations on expanding the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
“An expanded and modernized trade agreement with Israel will generate more jobs and economic growth at home and in Israel, while strengthening the close friendship that both countries enjoy,” Harper said in a statement.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.