Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister, has stirred up a domestic political storm by adopting a robust pro-Israel stance on the crisis in the Middle East.
By moving away from the more nuanced approach favoured by his Liberal pre-decessors, Mr Harper has come face-to-face with the growing clout of Canada’s fast-expanding immigrant population.
The furore was triggered by his remark last weekend that Israel’s response to Hizbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers “under the circumstances has been measured”. He added: “It is tremendously disappointing that these attacks were done in areas that Israel voluntarily evacuated.”
The government has been thrown on the defensive after the deaths of seven Canadians of Lebanese ex-traction in south Lebanon.
Seven ferries have been chartered to move Canadians who want to leave Lebanon to Cyprus and Turkey in what the government describes as the biggest evacuation of Canadians from a foreign country.
Many Canadians have been surprised to learn that an estimated 50,000 of their fellow-citizens either live in or are visiting Lebanon.
Canada now has a far bigger Muslim than Jewish population. According to Statistics Canada, the number of Muslims more than doubled to 580,000 between 1991 and 2001. The figure is now estimated at more than 700,000. By contrast, the Jewish population stood at 330,000 in 2001, only 3.7 per cent higher than a decade earlier.
Arab groups in Canada “have increasingly been giving Jewish groups a run for their money in lobbying”, said Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Western On-tario. Minority groups have traditionally thrown their support behind the Liberals.
Some analysts have interpreted Mr Harper’s unambiguous support for Israel as part of the Conservatives’ drive to mend Canada’s relations with the US. But others maintain that the shift reflects the more direct approach that he has taken on a range of issues since taking office in January.
Faced with a more assertive Muslim community, Hershell Ezrin, chief executive of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, said: “We continue to make sure that the stuff we advocate is rooted in Canadian values and Canadian interests.”