Cites security concerns for opting out of all-party trip
Highlights battle by groups to show MPs their perspective
Aug. 16, 2006. 07:57 AM
GRAHAM FRASER AND TONDA MACCHARLES
OTTAWA—Just before a parliamentary delegation left for Beirut, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office decided that no Conservative would be part of the trip.
Tory MP Dean Del Mastro (Peterborough) pulled out, telling organizers the Prime Minister’s Office had security concerns.
The other MPs — Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre), New Democrat Peggy Nash (Parkdale-High Park) and the Bloc Québécois’s Maria Mourani (Ahuntsic) — left yesterday for Beirut, Damascus and a Lebanese refugee camp in Syria in a trip organized by the National Council of Canada-Arab relations.
Harper has been unequivocal in his support for Israel in the recent hostilities with Hezbollah that resulted in the bombing of Lebanon and the evacuation of 14,000 Canadians.
The government’s decision to withdraw from yesterday’s trip shines a light on a quiet battle that has been waged behind the scenes for years, as Israel and Arab nations compete to show MPs their perspective by sponsoring visits to the region.
Recently, tactics have shifted. After years of sponsoring free travel for MPs, one of the country’s most powerful lobby groups has upped the ante, sending influential backroom political advisers to the region.
Last summer, the Canada-Israel Committee paid to send some of Harper’s closest confidantes to Israel, followed shortly by a group of top Liberal party officials, when that party was still in power.
It’s clear the trips have an impact personally on those who travel. But they also raise the question of whether they have an impact on public policy.
The Canada-Israel Committee denies they do, or even that that is their intent.
Their counterparts on the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations say while they also sponsor trips for MPs, they don’t have the money to compete with the Canada-Israel Committee.
They argue such trips have returned big dividends to the pro-Israel lobby in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
"If you hear some of the language of the people close to the Prime Minister, there’s no deviation from the Israeli government," says Mazen Chouaib, executive director of the council.
Harper sparked controversy when he called Israel’s military offensive in Lebanon a "measured" response to an incursion into Israel in mid-July by Hezbollah militants. As the civilian death toll and destruction mounted, he modified his position, saying such judgments had become more difficult as the war escalated.
The Conservatives who travelled to the Middle East last summer included party president Don Plett and Sandra Buckler, now Harper’s communications director. Among the senior Liberals who travelled were party president Mike Eizenga and executive director Steven MacKinnon.
Such trips are not uncommon. But in the past, the "junkets," which cost tens of thousands of dollars, have been aimed at elected officials, government staffers, or in some cases, at media representatives willing to take "freebies."
The Canada-Israel Committee has been offering them for 35 years — just last week it hosted a group of Parliament Hill researchers and staffers in Israel.
But aiming at backroom political opinion leaders and shapers is a more recent move.
Chouaib says his council has only sponsored trips for elected politicians (in all, it has organized 10 trips for up to 25 MPs), saying his group’s budget is far less than that of the Canada-Israel Committee.
The Canada-Israel Committee’s CEO, Shimon Fogel, disputes any suggestion the trips have had any policy influence.
"Nobody should think that Stephen Harper came to whatever position he did as a result of any undue influence. He did it on his own. For him, it was absolutely a principled position," Fogel said.
Both the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations and the Canada-Israel Committee say they are not trying to persuade the delegations of one side or another’s view in the Middle East, but to give them a deeper appreciation of the realities in the region.
So far this year, the federal ethics commissioner’s office says 25 "sponsored trips" have been registered under disclosure rules that require MPs to report all trips where a host picks up travel costs greater than $500.
Last year, 44 MPs reported a total of 67 trips — 18 of which were to Taiwan. Israel was the second most frequent destination, with 13 registered trips.