Netanyahu's Washington visit starts with Canadian stopover


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his offices on Jan. 29, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel.


Uriel Sinai

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins his North American visit in Canada today rather than Washington in an effort to ramp up pressure against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy, observers say.

Most expect Iran to dominate the agenda when Netanyahu meets Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa; the Israeli leader is to visit Washington on Monday.

Houchang Hassan-Yari, a Middle East expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the Obama administration’s wait-and-see approach to Iran isn’t enough for Israel.

“I think the fact that he is coming to Canada before the U.S. might show that he has more faith in the Canadian prime minister than the U.S. president,” Hassan-Yari told CBC.

Harper has expressed deep reservations about Iran. During interviews earlier this year, the Conservative Party of Canada leader said Iran’s ideology is cause for concern.

“In my judgment, these are people who have a ... fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation about using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes,” Harper said, CBC reported. “That’s what makes this regime in Iran particularly dangerous.”

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Voices coming from the US appear more moderate, the Globe and Mail said. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Iran a “rational actor.”

“The Obama administration is clearly not interested in this happening in an election year – if at all,” University of Ottawa’s Peter Jones told the Globe. “They believe that sanctions are having a considerable effect, and that they can modify Iranian behavior in that way.

“It’s going to be a real tug of war in Washington.”

McGill University professor Rex Brynen, an expert in Middle East issues, said Washington wants Israel to wait for economic sanctions to work before considering further action.

“Clearly, Netanyahu would like to put pressure on the Obama administration to support a more muscular, meaning possibly military, response to Iran’s nuclear program. He knows full well that there’s zero enthusiasm for that in the United States,” Brynen told Postmedia News. “He’s trying to create more pressure on the president, and to do that I think it makes some sense to talk to Prime Minister Harper whom he knows is kind of his ideological soulmate on this issue and is likely to support him, just in the sense of creating momentum. Whether it has any impact on Washington I think is negligible.”

Harper, however, must also weigh American response to his meeting with Netanyahu. While Israel is an ally, the US is Canada’s largest trading partner and traditional best friend.

The Canadian leader faces a choice: he can urge Netanyahu to trust sanctions, or send his blessings for military action with the Israeli PM south of the border.

“This is the leverage that our prime minister has, I believe, and he can use it,” Hassan-Yari said. “He's in a position to advise Mr. Netanyahu to be more cautious.”

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