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Singling out Israel is 'weak, wrong' form of new anti-Semitism: Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Knesset on Monday, January 20, 2014. While in the Middle East Harper is visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Knesset on Monday, January 20, 2014. While in the Middle East Harper is visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned Monday of a new age of anti-Semitism, staking new ground in his allegiance to Israel by telling the country's parliamentarians that those who oppose the Jewish state are little more than hateful anti-Semites.

The loathing for Jews that resulted in the "horrors of the death camps" of Nazi Germany was crude and ignorant, Harper said in a historic speech to the Knesset, the first such address before the Israeli parliament by a Canadian prime minister.

"But in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society," he said.

"People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East."

Harper's speech was greeted by several prolonged standing ovations — and one dramatic outburst that served to illustrate the tense relations that characterize the Jewish-Arab relationship in the troubled region.

"Israel is an apartheid state," shouted Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament who then stormed out of the Knesset, followed by a colleague.

The pair angrily strode from the chamber after Harper assailed the "twisted logic" of making such a comparison to South Africa's racist regime.

Throughout his speech, Harper looked back into history, touching not just on the Holocaust but Canada's own refusal in the 1930s to help Jewish refugees, something he deemed a "terrible mistake."

He spoke of the founding of Israel as a place where people could "seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history."

While criticism of Israeli government policy isn't anti-Semitic, Harper said, criticism that targets only Israel while ignoring violence and oppression in its neighbours is unacceptable.

"It is, thus, a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular," Harper said. "But, I would argue, support today for the Jewish state of Israel is more than a moral imperative. It is also of strategic importance, also a matter of our own, long-term interests."

Harper said the forces that have threatened Israel "every single day of its existence" threaten all countries, "as 9-11 graphically showed us."

The prime minister said he refused to single out Israel for criticism, saying it is easy to follow the international crowd and focus only on one country — a "go-along-to-get-along" approach he described as both weak and wrong.

But Canada would be quick to welcome a new sovereign Palestinian state if its leaders chose democracy and peace, he added.

"Just as we unequivocally support Israel's right of self-defence, so too Canada has long supported a just and secure future for the Palestinian people," Harper said.

"And, I believe, we share with Israel a sincere hope that the Palestinian people and their leaders will choose a viable, democratic, Palestinian state, committed to living peacefully alongside the Jewish state of Israel."

Harper's speech to the Knesset took place just a few hours after his return to Jerusalem from Ramallah in the West Bank, where he met with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority.

Under heavy security, the two leaders met for about a half-hour at the presidential palace before appearing at a joint news conference.

Harper also pledged $66 million in new aid to the Palestinians during their meeting. While the new funds are on top of $30 million announced last November, it still isn't as high as previous levels of funding to the Palestinians.

Relations between Canada and Palestine have been strained since the Conservative government attempted to block a bid by the Palestinians for observer-state status at the United Nations last year.

On Monday, as Palestinian officials and some Canadian cabinet ministers looked on, Harper disputed suggestions that his stance on the conflict between Israel and Palestine is pro-Israeli.

Instead, he said, his position is a Canadian one, adding he favours a two-state solution in which Israel can thrive in peace and security alongside a Palestinian state.

Harper also denied reports in some Israeli media that he's been asked to absorb Palestinian refugees as part of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. The prime minister said Canada hasn't been asked to take any refugees.

Foreshadowing his Knesset speech, Harper forcefully made clear that he would not be drawn into chiding Israel.

Abbas, meantime, said Canada is entitled to its opinion on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but added he wants an open dialogue with his Canadian counterparts.

In his Knesset address, Harper also pledged solidarity with Israel on Iran, saying it will keep sanctions in place and steadfastly work to oppose Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

"We truly hope that it is possible to walk the Iranian government back from taking the irreversible step of manufacturing nuclear weapons," he said. "But, for now, Canada's own sanctions will remain fully in place and should our hopes not be realized, should the present agreement prove ephemeral, Canada will be a strong voice for renewed sanctions."

That promise drew the loudest and longest of several standing ovations from the assembled members and spectators.

Harper made the trip to Ramallah after visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, considered by many to be the birthplace of Christ.

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