OTTAWA – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his visit to Canada on Monday to deal with fallout from the flotilla attack off the Gaza strip — sparing Stephen Harper some difficult political navigation.
Harper issued a terse statement of “regret,” distinguishing Canada’s pro-Israel Conservatives from broad international condemnation of the Jewish state after a botched Israeli raid left at least 10 Palestinian activists dead.
But the two leaders cancelled a joint news conference in Ottawa, relieving Harper from having to weigh in further on the latest Middle East flash point — a tough job for any world leader and one that has caused Harper headaches in the past.
The government had little to say about 53-year-old Kevin Neish of Victoria, who lost contact with his friends after joining pro-Palestinian activists on one of the flotilla ships delivering supplies to the Gaza strip.
Harper treated the visiting Netanyahu gently during a photo opportunity, briefly mentioning the high-seas carnage that ensued after Israeli soldiers boarded one of the ships.
“I’m sorry this has coloured this (visit), but delighted you were able to join me at least last night and today, and we’ve had some important talks, so welcome to Canada,” Harper told Netanyahu in his Parliament Hill office.
“Canada deeply regrets this action, this loss of life and the injuries that have occurred. Obviously, we’ll be looking in the days that follow to get all the information we can get,” Harper said, as he left it to his guest to explain his country’s actions.
Netanyahu’s departure also kept him from a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, set for Tuesday. The White House said the meeting would be rescheduled, adding that it “deeply regrets” the incident.
Netanyahu said both Harper and Obama understand that Israel has a “security problem.”
The Israeli prime minister said his soldiers were simply defending themselves when they were attacked on a sixth aid ship, after peacefully diverting five others to Israel’s port in Ashdod, where their cargoes were cleared.
“They deliberately attacked the first soldiers who came on the ship,” he said. “They were mobbed, they were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed …
“Our soldiers had to defend themselves, defend their lives, or they would have been killed.”
Netanyahu said the boarding came as the Israeli navy was checking for any rockets, missiles or explosives that might have been headed for Gaza and destined to be fired into Israel.
“Gaza has become a base for Hamas terrorists backed by Iran from which they’ve fired thousands of rockets into Israel. They’re amassing thousands more rockets to fire at our cities, at our towns, at our children,” Netanyahu said.
“Our policy is this: We try to let in all humanitarian goods into Gaza, all peaceful commodities, food, medicine and the like. What we want to prevent coming into Gaza are rockets, missiles, explosives and war materials that can be used to attack our civilians.”
A group called Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East said Israel used “disproportionate force against civilians” and behaved in a “completely reprehensible” manner.
“The Canadian government’s unwillingness to question Israel’s conduct even in these most extreme circumstances is also disappointing and upsetting,” the group said in a statement.
The B’nai Brith Canada, the Jewish advocacy group, applauded the Harper government for not jumping to conclusions, and called the “Free Gaza Flotilla” a terrorist group with links to al-Qaida and Hamas.
“We also await the facts and urge rational Canadians not to jump to conclusions, even though there are many who are trying hard to seize this obviously staged opportunity for the purpose of spreading hateful propaganda,” said spokesman Frank Dimant.
“No one should be fooled that the Gaza flotilla was part of some docile humanitarian mission. This was an action organized primarily by Islamists with ties to various terrorist groups across the globe whose obvious goal was to provoke Israel into a response.”
Hundreds of people protested the attack in cities across Canada. In Toronto, people peacefully marched outside the Israeli consulate and condemned the killings while in Vancouver, 100 demonstrators called for a change to Israeli policy.
Four years ago, Harper called Israel’s bombardment of Beirut International Airport a “measured response” to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon.
During the summer war between Israel and Lebanon-based militants that followed, Harper was criticized by Arab and Muslim Canadians for supporting a disproportionate military response by Israel.
Harper’s remark solidified the Conservatives new tilt toward Israel in the Middle East conflict, sparking criticism that they had compromised Canada’s neutrality in the troubled region.
Netanyahu extolled Canada’s friendship with Israel at the start of his two-day visit on Sunday in Toronto.
That warm reception Netanyahu received in Canada on Monday contrasted with the long-distance scolding of Israel by UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
“I condemn this violence,” said Ban. “I believe Israel must urgently provide a full explanation.”
Said Pillay: “I unequivocally condemn what appears to be disproportionate use of forces, resulting in the killing and wounding of so many people.”
Turkey, Israel’s best friend in the Muslim world, withdrew its ambassador to Israel, and called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.
The Israeli ambassadors in Sweden, Egypt, Spain, Denmark and Greece were summoned for meetings, and the French foreign minister has called for an investigation.
The European Union said it was deeply concerned and called on Israel to carry out an inquiry. British Foreign Secretary William Hague deplored the killings and called for an end to the Gaza blockade.