The Globe and Mail
August 5, 2006
CORNWALL, Ont. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper softened his tone on the Middle East Friday in an interview on Quebec television, saying a lot has changed in the three weeks since he called the Israeli attacks on Lebanon a "measured response."
"We were talking about three weeks ago when Hezbollah took Israeli soldiers hostage, and an initial response," Mr. Harper told the TVA network in French.
"But now we have a completely different situation from three weeks ago, as I’ve said many times. We have a full-blown conflict, almost a war. And it’s hard to say whether a response is proportional to another. It’s a war.
"I’m a father. I understand the death of children, the death of families and it’s terrible, as I said. It’s not only terrible for Canadians. It’s terrible for the thousands of people killed in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza."
It was a softer approach for the Prime Minister, who has made few official comments on the crisis in the Middle East and who was widely criticized in the Lebanese community for using the term "measured response."
His comments were directed at an audience in Quebec, where a majority of people oppose Mr. Harper’s support of Israel. A recent Strategic Counsel poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV found that 45 per cent of voters in Canada disagree with his support of Israel’s actions, but in Quebec that number climbs to 61 per cent.
Mr. Harper struck a decidedly different tone in another interview taped Friday for CTV’s Question Period, to be aired tomorrow, and at a meeting of the Conservative Party caucus in Cornwall, Ont.
Asked by a CTV reporter about criticisms that Canada has given up its role as a neutral voice and honest broker in the Middle East, Mr. Harper responded: "What’s the neutrality here? Are we neutral with regard to Hezbollah? Are we neutral on a terrorist group? I don’t think the opposition wants to say that … but if they want to say it let them say it explicitly.
"What exactly are they saying? Are they suggesting Israel unilaterally stop defending itself, or stop participating or declare a unilateral ceasefire? Are they suggesting we become neutral vis-à-vis terrorist organizations that we’re fighting in Afghanistan, that we’re frankly fighting in this country with the arrests in Toronto? This is not a viable position."
And in Cornwall, Mr. Harper said that Canadians who comprehend the Conservative government’s support of Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon agree with the decision to take a side in the conflict.
"I think the position we have, properly understood, is exactly the position of Canadians.
"Canadians want to see peace and stability in the Middle East. Canadians are not neutral on terrorism or on terrorist groups and Canadians want us to work with the international community to develop a strong position that can lead to a durable and lasting peace.
Mr. Harper also said "it isn’t just a matter of demanding a ceasefire.
"Conditions have to be put in place to make a ceasefire possible and make it stable. Obviously that isn’t going to be the case as long as we have a terrorist organization that is initiating violence and won’t cease its attacks."
That is also the position Canada voiced three weeks ago when it joined the other G8 countries in a statement, he said.
In fact, the G8 did blame Hezbollah and Hamas for igniting the crisis but also urged Israel to show "utmost restraint" in a release that allowed world leaders to interpret the wording in different ways.
Throughout Friday morning, about 100 Lebanese protesters marched in front of the secure facility that hosted the cloistered caucus meeting to demand an audience with the government. Two were eventually invited to meet with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner.
But Mr. Harper warned that the government "can’t take positions based on reaction in certain domestic communities.
"These are serious international issues. There’s not only a lot of lives at stake, there are a lot of long-term strategic interests of this country, and of the world, at stake here."