Why are the Harper Conservatives so pro-Israel?

Yet even by the standards of Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have taken support for Israel to a whole new level. Harper’s government has declared that “Israel has no greater friend in the world today than Canada.” A leading Israeli newspaper calls Harper “Netanyahu’s closest ally” and “the foreign leader friendliest to Israel.” When the Palestinian Authority sought greater recognition at the UN in 2012, Canada threatened to cut off aid to Palestine.

The Harper Conservatives’ approach marks a significant break with Canadian government policy of the past sixty years. Although Canada has always been pro-Israel, it has traditionally represented itself as more of a neutral party in disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, and indeed has acted less one-sidedly in the past. In 1967, for example, Canada supported the UN resolution demanding Israel withdraw troops from newly-occupied Palestinian lands and calling for a just settlement of refugees. This sort of position is inconceivable today. Political scientist Harold Waller is clear about the current government’s shift: “I think Harper’s backing of Israel is unprecedented for any Canadian prime minister. He’s much more a staunch supporter of Israel than any of his predecessors.”

Describing Harper’s pro-Israel policy as extreme need not contradict the fact that Canada has always been complicit in Israeli apartheid. In fact, if Palestine solidarity activists in Canada are to clearly identify the challenges and openings faced in our current organizing context, we need to address the question: why are the Harper Conservatives so extremely pro-Israel?

Incomplete answers

Harper’s Israel cheerleading has become so passionate as to puzzle some in his own ranks. For example, even Canadian government officials, including former ambassadors to Israel, have argued that Canada’s extreme pro-Israel stance weakens Canada’s reputation in the international arena. Others wonder why Harper would pursue a policy that more than half of Canadians disapprove of. In contrast to the suggestion that the Harper government’s policy is illogical (because it tarnishes Canada’s international reputation or because it risks alienating voters or for some other reason), I want to suggest that there is in fact a clear logic to the government’s support for Israel when interpreted in the context of a much broader policy shift.

This argument is different than the main ones on offer. The government’s own explanation can be dispensed with immediately. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s claim that “Israel is worthy of our support because it is a society that shares so many values with Canada – freedom… democracy… human rights and the rule of law” is absurd not only because of the apartheid character of Israel but because Canada itself is built on the dispossession of indigenous people at home and abroad and has a long track record of befriending all sorts of brutal, anti-democratic regimes (Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia, and Mubarek’s Egypt, to name just a few).

But the answers typically offered by both mainstream and radical commentators are also inadequate. They tend to focus on the power of the “Israel lobby” and Conservative electoral strategy. For example, the CBC radio show The Current aired an episode called “Jewish Voters” that began: “Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s staunch support for Israel appears to be attracting a sizeable number of Jewish voters, many of whom have traditionally voted Liberal.” In the run-up to the 2011 federal election, much was made about Harper’s Israel policy as a strategy for winning close ridings in Toronto and Montreal.

Approaching the question from the radical left, Yves Engler argues that “rather than ‘Jewish votes’ Harper’s ‘Israel no matter what’ policy has more to do with mobilizing his rightwing, evangelical base on an issue (unlike abortion) that has limited electoral downside.” Other radicals assert that Canada has a default interest in supporting the Israeli state because the two have a shared history of settler colonialism.

There is probably some truth in both these viewpoints. Like all major political parties, the Conservative Party is crucially motivated by a quest for votes. But it is misguided to attribute such a significant policy change to electoral struggles in a few urban ridings, especially when polls suggest that the Conservative brand of extreme support for Israel is actually out of step with a majority of Canadians. More importantly, explaining a major policy shift as a result of vote-seeking is inconsistent with a critical understanding of state and society that recognizes that what states do is crucially shaped by their role in reproducing capitalism in the part of the world in which they are located. Radicals need to be careful not to reproduce mainstream assumptions about the main forces that shape how governments act.

What about the other common explanation, that Canada backs Israel because both are colonial states? It’s true that both Canada and Israel were built on the dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples, and both work hard to hide their unjust foundations beneath the mask of liberal democracy. But many states around the world that were not built upon settler colonialism are also strong supporters of Israel. The fact that both Canada and Israel are settler colonial states is worth considering, as I do below. But this fact alone does not explain why the Conservative government has so drastically changed Canadian policy toward Israel since taking office. After all, Canada has always been a settler colonial state but its support for Israel has only become so extreme under the current government.

The logic of Harper’s Israel policy

If we are to understand Harper’s Israel policy more fully, we need to view it in the broader context of the government’s overhauling of domestic affairs and repositioning of Canada’s place in the world. To be more specific, it’s clear that in an increasingly competitive global economy, the Harper government is staking Canada’s future on becoming a leader in the field of natural resource extraction and related hi-tech industries. It recognizes Israel as a model of this sort of economy and the type of social system required to support it. Israel is a trailblazer in a range of neo-liberal strategies that the Harper government desperately wants to profit from and mimic.

By neo-liberalism, I mean a socio-economic model in which the state plays a very active role in pushing land, goods, services, and human capacities for labour onto the market where they can be bought and sold for profit. The budding relationship between the Canadian and Israeli states reflects the Harper government’s particular neoliberal strategy for Canadian capitalism.

The Harper government has been explicit about its intent to reshape politics and economics in Canada, and its actions confirm this commitment. Harper is seeking to turn Canada into an “energy superpower,” where a top priority of the state is establishing the conditions for the aggressive advance of the extractive industries and related ventures at home and abroad. The prime minister’s words are instructive: “We are an emerging energy superpower. We want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy. It’s that simple.” Realizing this goal is the government’s core project.

To do this, more and more people, land, and services must be driven into the market, because the market is the only place that profits are made. This ongoing process has been called “accumulation by dispossession” by the geographer David Harvey [1]. Anything that obstructs the buying and selling of land, resources, labour, and social support systems is treated as an obstacle to  be demolished.

For example, one of the key planks of Harper’s aboriginal policy has been to privatize reserve land, breaking up the legal basis of collective ownership and opening up indigenous lands to capitalist development [2]. Shiri Pasternak writes that “collectively held indigenous lands continue to pose major barriers to capitalist expansion” because massive deposits of minerals and fossil fuels and “over half of large intact forest landscapes are found on lands in historical Aboriginal treaty areas.”  In order for Harper’s energy superpower to thrive, indigenous rights must be extinguished and indigenous people forced off their lands.

At the same time, the government has imposed new rules that make it virtually impossible for critics to speak at government hearings on oil-sands and pipeline development, giving exclusive voice to industry advocates. Foreign policy is also being used to further the interests of Canadian mining, oil, and gas companies. For example, in the 2013 budget the government folded the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Foreign Affairs ministry, and pronounced that the job of CIDA is to support Canadian businesses overseas, and indeed partner with private corporations. Funding to universities is increasingly tied to researchers’ ability to generate knowledge that can be turned into profit.
Neo-liberalism Israeli-style

The Harper government’s extreme support for Israel becomes easier to understand when we realize that Israel is a leader in endeavours that are key to the success of Harper’s strategy. 

Israel provides the Harper government a model for the integration of dispossession, research, innovation, and commercialization that has led Israeli companies to become global leaders in biotech, military, and other hi-tech industries. Adam Hannieh explains that after decades of state ownership of major industries in Israel, the 1980s and 1990s were a period of rapid privatization in which a domestic capitalist class was consolidated [3]. The core focus of the Israeli capitalist class is the hi-tech sector, where innovations in fields such as water purification, pharmaceuticals, information and communication technologies, and armaments are the basis of profit-making that depends on  the commercialization of knowledge and “permanent siege” of Palestine [4].

Postsecondary institutions in Israel are closely aligned with the private sector, and Israel’s Technion university is ranked sixth in the world for “entrepreneurship and innovation.” A course at the University of Haifa entitled “Innovation in a Nation: The Israeli Phenomenon” explains that “Israel has earned a reputation as one of the most active hubs for innovation, second only to Silicon Valley. Its ventures gain their founders multibillion dollars worth of ‘exits’ every year, promoting the country as an attractive target for acquisitions.” The Harper government’s efforts to tie postsecondary funding to private sector development, especially in science and technology, demonstrate its commitment to this framework. So does the change to CIDA mentioned above. In fact, the Harper government recently signed a foreign aid pact with Israel designed to “encourage the two countries to share strategies for international development.”

Political leaders in Canada are clear about wanting to learn from and link with Israel in order to develop a similar economic model in this country. For example, while visiting Israel in 2010, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty explained the importance of partnering with Israeli companies like Teva Pharmaceuticals: “Teva Pharmaceuticals is a perfect example of the kind of partner we’re looking for in Israel. This is a country where scientists and academic leaders have figured out how to turn today’s ideas into tomorrow’s new investments. We’re here to learn and promote the benefits of doing business with Ontario’s life sciences companies.” In April 2013, two ministers in the Harper government — Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, and Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear — announced a request for proposals under the new Canada-Israel Energy Science and Technology Fund, seeking collaborations that will “spur the development of innovative energy technologies… of interest to both countries.”

The Harper government recognizes the way in which the resources of the Israeli state have been used to create a more integrated economy, in which the needs of business determine regulatory frameworks and knowledge generated in universities, which feed into profitable technological developments that fortify the institutions of apartheid that Israel depends on for its success. This is not to suggest that the situation in Canada is identical to conditions in Israel-Palestine. But Israel is a master teacher in the modern arts of accumulation by dispossession, and Canadian governments and businesses want a piece of the action.

Importing the matrix of control

Of course, Harper’s neo-liberal project also requires beefing up the state’s security apparatus. A successful new phase of accumulation by dispossession must guard against resistance at home and abroad and eliminate alternatives. Canada looks to Israel on this front as well, as Israel is also a global leader in the repressive “securitization” project.

At a symbolic level, Israel provides lessons in mobilizing the emotional basis of national identity to consolidate its version of neo-liberal settler colonialism. This is also what the  Harper government is doing through military pageantry, tough-on-crime rhetoric and legislation, and generating fear of foreign influences at the same time as the Conservative austerity agenda actually drives down most people’s standards of living.

More concretely, the Harper government is purchasing Israeli technology and partnering with Israeli organizations that prop up the Israeli economy through the theft of Palestinian land and attacks on Palestinian resistance.   

As Jeff Halper argues, Israel profits by exporting elements of its “matrix of control,” the system it uses to dominate Palestinian life. In Naomi Klein’s words: “Many of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel’s status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of 24-hour-a-day showroom, a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war.”
The Harper government is developing ways to turn this into a partnership: “Canadian forces use Israeli-made drones in Afghanistan and the IDF uses Canadian-made electronics in its operations in the West Bank and Gaza.” The ministries responsible for securitization in Canada and Israel have signed a declaration committing the two countries to sharing “knowledge, expertise, experience, information, research, and best practices” and to facilitating “technical exchange cooperation, including education, training, and exercises” in the name of forging “a more structured framework for the continued cooperation on public safety issues between Canada and Israel.” Israeli security companies such as G4S, which support Israeli prisons that brutalize Palestinians, do open business in Canada. Police and military forces in Canada have received training in Israel.

Importing aspects of Israel’s matrix of control fits with the logic driving Harper’s energy superpower agenda. This new phase of accumulation by dispossession seeks to open up new lands to private development at the same time as it shuts down access to entitlements such as pensions, unemployment insurance, welfare, and environmental protections won through popular struggles of the past. Part of Harper’s project is developing mechanisms of discipline to deal with challenges to growing social and environmental injustice.

Resistance to Harper’s agenda rages on multiple fronts, from indigenous peoples like the Embera Katio nation in Colombia (fighting against Canadian construction firms) to the inspiring Idle No More movement in Canada, as well as non-indigenous environmental and anti-capitalist activists. Pasternak notes that Canadian governments and corporations recognize that “critical infrastructure in Canada is at the mercy of Indigenous peoples, who are more rural than Canadians and have access to important arteries for economic flows: transportations corridors, energy sectors, and sites of natural resource extraction.” In the words of Idle No More activist Pamela D. Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, “First Nations represent Canadians’ last best hope at stopping Harper from unfettered mass destruction of our shared lands, waters, plants and animals in the name of resource development.”

So while settler colonialism in Canada has always been about the violent displacement of indigenous peoples, the Harper government’s passionate defence of Israel and attacks on opposition to Israeli apartheid is also connected to its determination to defeat resistance to its agenda, at home and abroad. Canada not only supports but partners with and profits from Israel’s domination of Palestine.

Strengthening coalitions to end Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid

The Harper government’s extreme support for Israel is more complex and wider ranging than is often recognized. It is linked to Harper’s version of 21st century neo-liberalism in Canada, which depends upon a new phase of accumulation by dispossession that includes a more aggressive securitization project.

Tracing out the ways in which the emergent Canada-Israel bond works in both  symbolic and material ways can help Palestine solidarity organizing and anti-capitalist activism more broadly. Struggles for indigenous sovereignty, environmental protection, prison abolition, workers’ power, and economic equality are not merely allies in the sense that they share a desire for social justice and wish the best for each other. The problems we face are integrated and so require an integrated fightback.  Supporting the “Sovereignty Summer” called jointly by Idle No More and Defenders of the Land, for example, could be done in solidarity with Palestinian liberation not only in the general spirit of anti-colonial resistance of peoples around the world but in substance as direct action against the Canadian and Israeli joint project in accumulation by dispossession.

The breadth of Harper’s neo-liberal assault should provoke all sorts of discussions and actions that integrate Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions activism against Israel into struggles for social and environmental justice in the workplace, on campuses, in neighbourhoods, and throughout society.

As Adam Hanieh puts it, “It is not merely the depth of suffering or length of exile that makes the Palestinian struggle an imperative of international solidarity in the current period. It is also the central location of the struggle within the broader context of global resistance to imperialism and neoliberalism.” 


[1] David Harvey, The new imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2003, chap. 4.

[2] Todd Gordon, Imperialist Canada (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring), 2010.

[3] Adam Hanieh, “From state-led growth to globalization: The evolution of Israeli capitalism,” Journal of Palestine Studies 32 (2003): 5-21.

[4] Bashir Abu-Manneh, “Israel’s colonial siege and the Palestinians,” Socialist Register 44 (2008):101-120.

James Cairns is active with the Toronto New Socialists and Faculty 4 Palestine. He and Alan Sears recently published The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the 21st Century.