OTTAWA - Canada and Israel once again affirmed their strong bond of friendship, but the Harper government made it clear Friday that doesn't necessarily extend to supporting a pre-emptive strike by the Jewish state on Iran.
Standing next to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada wants to see a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear stand-off with the West. Harper stopped short of endorsing military action by Israel to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
That's the same message that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered to the House of Commons while Harper and Netanyahu were holding talks a short walk away in the prime minister's office in the Centre Block.
There are concerns Israel is contemplating a pre-emptive strike and Netanyahu did nothing to dampen that.
Harper's and Baird's remarks represented an apparent softening of their hawkish rhetoric lately about the existential threats that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel. Some analysts have suggested the Harper government had been attempting to pave the way for support of a pre-emptive military action by Israel.
"We have been very clear about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, about its intentions and capabilities. That remains a serious concern of this country, and I think I've expressed those views very clearly," Harper said at a joint news conference with the Israeli leader.
"In terms of hypothetical situations, I think as the prime minister is aware, Canada's position is very clear: we of course recognize the right of Israel to defend itself as a sovereign state, as a Jewish state. That said, we want to see a peaceful resolution of this issue. And we want to see every action taken to get a peaceful resolution of the situation."
In the Commons, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae pressed the government on the issue.
"We obviously do not want to see any military action," Baird replied.
"That is why we are working hard with the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and others to take every single diplomatic effort necessary to try to ensure that Iran does not achieve nuclear weapon status. …
"We believe right now the best course to take is every single diplomatic action. That is exactly what Canada is doing."
The New Democrat foreign affairs critic, Helen Laverdiere, said the Opposition was concerned about Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons.
"But the situation in the region is very delicate. Reckless and provocative rhetoric about military action won't solve anything; it only plays into the hands of the Iranian regime. We need to see a stronger emphasis on diplomatic efforts from the Canadian government," she said.
None of that moved Netanyahu from his hardline position on Iran, as he prepares to make his case in what will be a less friendly visit with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington after leaving Ottawa in the coming days.
Netanyahu said the international community is in firm agreement that Iran should be prevented from achieving nuclear weapons capability, and he expressed great skepticism over another round of diplomatic negotiations with Tehran.
He said that even if Iran agrees to resume international talks on its nuclear program, it could just be a ruse to stall for time to complete a bomb program.
"The danger is not only to Israel. … I think it's a danger to the whole world," he said, citing Iran's backing of Hamas in Gaza, its supplying rockets to Hezbollah that are fired on Israel, and its threats to choke world's oil supply at the Strait of Hormuz, among other things.
"They hang gays; they stone women," Netanyahu said.
"Imagine what a regime like this would do if they had atomic weapons. I think it would be a hinge of history; it would be a great danger for all the nations of the world, certainly to my nation but to many others as well."
Netanyahu was at the start of a mostly private, three-day Canadian visit.
Upon arrival, the Israeli leader spoke at length for clicking cameras about the top subject for his private meeting with Harper — Iran.
"One of the things I would like to discuss with you is the remarkable turbulence that is shaking the Middle East and of course Iran's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said to Harper as they posed briefly for pictures before sitting down to talk.
"I know, from many conversations that we've had, that you share my view that this is a grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I think that it's important that the international community not allow this threat to materialize …
"Like any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction."
A guard of honour stood by and cannons boomed out a salute as Harper greeted Netanyahu at the foot of the Peace Tower.
A military band played both national anthems before Harper escorted him inside.
The Israeli prime minister joked about the cold day and spoke warmly about his friendship with both Harper and Canada.
"We're impressed by the kinship that we feel and look forward to discussing how we can strengthen our relationship even more in all the diverse fields that we'll discuss," he said at the photo op.
"There are some dissimilarities. We share common interests and common values but we have a few snow flakes in Jerusalem today, you have metres of them. We have a slightly smaller country, one of the smallest countries in the world, you have one of the largest and, of course, you have a better neighbourhood. More stable, more friendly."
The two prime ministers also discussed the deteriorating situation in Syria as that nation teeters on the brink of full-blown civil war.
Harper and his ministers make no apologies for their strong support of Israel. The prime minister has faced criticism in some circles for echoing Israel's allegation that Iran wouldn't hesitate to use nuclear weapons and that it poses a grave threat to peace and security.
Others say his tilt toward Israel is driven by domestic political considerations and has unbalanced Canada's traditional position on Middle East issues.
The two leaders also discussed economic issues.
"We are co-operating in unprecedented ways in the economy and technology. I'd like to see even greater investments, even greater trade," said Netanyahu.