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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Harper's speech to Israeli Knesset garners international attention

TORONTO - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's official tours don't often generate international headlines, but Monday's historic address to Israel's parliament was a notable exception.

Harper's unequivocal words of support for Israel and broad admonitions to other countries earned considerable coverage in news outlets around the world.

Articles were plentiful in Israeli media, with pundits weighing in on both the content of and rationale behind Harper's words.

But the unique nature of Harper's address to the Knesset caught the attention of some U.S. media outlets as well.

News articles and blog entries on prominent sites such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Economist captured the widely divergent reactions published in other parts of the world more closely connected to Harper's words.

Israeli press was most positive about Harper's speech, in which he accused those who blame the country for problems in the Middle East of being anti-Semitic.

The Jerusalem Posts's extensive coverage of the well-received speech included an editorial celebrating Harper's position.

The prime minister was lauded for not trying to soften his praise of Israel with criticisms that other international leaders have levelled.

The editorial compared Harper's words to those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, noting their similar sentiments on Israel's role in the Middle East and its sometimes acrimonious relations with western countries.

"What a shame, Netanyahu had to be thinking to himself while listening to Harper’s words, delivered without pathos and in a very matter-of fact and even dry Canadianer, that there are not more leaders out there like him," the editorial read.

Israeli news outlet Haaretz expressed a similar sentiment, though in more critical terms, noting that Harper's supportive tone would be more of a boon to Netanyahu than to the country he leads.

The Haaretz editorial asserted that Harper's unrestrained praise will do little to further the peace process he claims to support, arguing his words may even fan the flames of the political turmoil in Israel.

"If the prime minister of Canada thinks his words in the Knesset will advance peace, it seems that the opposite is true. His speech only served Netanyahu's repression instinct and strengthened his feelings of victimization and isolationism that already exists in him," the article reads. "Harper put Netanyahu back months from the standpoint of his attitude concerning the peace process."

The limited coverage in Arab media outlets was unsurprisingly critical of Harper, with some publishing calls for Canada to become less involved in the region's complex politics.

A spokesman for the Fateh revolutionary council, a hard-line Palestinian group, told the Iyamouna newspaper that Harper was doing little more than parroting Israeli propaganda and showing ignorance and insensitivity to the dynamics at play in the Middle East.

The English-speaking wing of Al-Jazeera ran an editorial dissecting Harper's address and characterizing it as "baffling," arguing Harper's enthusiastic praise strikes a different tone from the more nuanced positions published on Canada's official government websites.

The article criticized Harper for holding outdated views of Israel and opined that Canada's reputation may suffer as a result of his uncompromising stance.

"When Mr Harper moves on, Canada, its people and its public servants may well return to a more natural role but, in the meantime, the cost is paid by the diminishing of an exceptional country: Harper's positions on the Middle East matter less than the opportunity cost to Canada's role as a catalyst of solutions," it says.

Coverage in international western media was more muted. European news stories on the speech were scarce, U.S. publications largely treated the speech as a political curiosity.

While right-leaning Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin heaped praise on Harper's words and lamented that U.S. President Barack Obama had not taken a similarly warm tone with the Israeli government, papers such as the Wall Street Journal tried to place the speech in the context of international politics.

The newspaper quoted former Israeli ambassador to Canada Alan Baker as saying Harper's voice stands alone in support of a country that has come under attack by historic allies in recent months, due in part to its vocal opposition an international nuclear arms deal with Iran.

“Israel is facing a difficult international front today, where even its best friends in the U.S. and Europe are among its most violent critics,” Baker told the Journal.

A blog entry on the Economist, however, turned attention back towards Canada where reception of Harper's speech was decidedly mixed.

The entry questioned the political and economic wisdom of such staunch support for Israel, saying Canada's comparatively small Jewish population and relatively low volume of trade with Israel are not compelling reasons for such a stance.

"The series of standing ovations he received will have made a nice change for Mr Harper, who is under fire back home," it said. "But the rationale for the trip and for the policy that underlies it causes puzzlement in Canada."

— with files from Lina Dib

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