Israel wants Harper’s advice on natural gas during historic visit: ambassador

OTTAWA – Israel’s new ambassador says his country appreciates Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s unwavering friendship, his government’s tough talk on Iran, and even its financial aid to the Palestinian people.

But when Harper makes his historic visit next month to Israel, its leaders want his help in another area — making the most of its newly discovered natural gas.

“The Bible said we are the land of milk and honey but suddenly we discovered gas,” the newly-arrived Israeli ambassador Rafi Barak told The Canadian Press in an interview Tuesday — his first since assuming the post a little more than a week ago.

“You have lots of experience in this country. So we would like to share our concerns and curiosity and learn from you on how to develop our gas.”

Israel will roll out the red carpet, and progress on trade with Canada will feature prominently during Harper’s visit next month, Barak said.

It will be Harper’s his first trip to Israel since he took office seven years ago and positioned Canada as the Jewish state’s staunchest ally and closest friend.

Israel wants to open discussions on how to expand its modest free trade agreement with Canada. The two countries signed a deal in 1997 eliminating tariffs on some industrial and agricultural products, boosting bilateral trade to $1.4 billion.

That may be a far cry from the nearly $2 billion a day that crosses the Canada-U.S. border, but Israel remains hopeful of a more sweeping deal that might stretch into biotech, environment and financial services, said Barak.

“This is the first generation of trade agreements. Now we have to upgrade it. In these next few weeks, this will coincide with the visit of Mr. Harper.”

Barak said the details still need to be worked out in the coming weeks of any possible announcement.

Israel discovered natural gas off its Mediterranean coast about a decade and a half ago, but the deposits have proven far larger than first thought. That has raised the likelihood of Israel becoming an exporter of gas in the future, instead of relying on imports to meet its energy needs.

Harper’s visit will coincide with the 65th anniversary of Israeli-Canadian relations.

The prime minister announced his intention to visit during a Sunday fundraiser in Toronto sponsored by the Canadian Jewish community. It raised $5.7 million to help refurbish a bird sanctuary in northern Israel that is to be named after the prime minister.

Barak said the Israeli government views the wetlands preserve as “our symbolic way to say thanks” to Harper for the public support he’s offered their country over the years.

It is a stance that has opened the Conservative government to widespread criticism that it has tilted too far towards Israel on the Middle East.

Barak said Canada’s support is not that much different from that of other close allies such as the United States and European countries. The difference, he said, is that the Harper government isn’t afraid of stating that support in public.

He cited the recent example of Canada’s reaction to the U.S.-brokered deal designed to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed skepticism about the deal, a stance that set Canada apart from more optimistic allies such as the U.S., Britain and Germany.

“All the countries you mention understand our concerns one way or the other. There are some that express this in a very tacit way and others are telling us in discreet, diplomatic conversations,” Barak explained.

“They have enough uranium for four to five bombs. This is Iran today. We feel that the world should be tough, should express its ideas quite clearly. We are very satisfied that Canada feels like us.”

Canada’s aid contributions to the Palestinians are helping bring peace to the Middle East, he said.

Canada’s $300 million, five-year aid pledged to the Palestinian Authority was due to run out this past March, but the commitment has been extended. Baird has said more Canadian development assistance would follow.

Canada’s contribution goes toward strengthening the justice system, private sector economic development, and health and education assistance in the West Bank.

Barak said he expected Harper to visit Canadian projects there on his visit.

Strengthening those institutions is a critical element to making any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement hold over time, he said.

“Any foreign government adding to this contribution is something that we really support. It’s positive for a stable peace because peace is not only a document,” said Barak.

“This should be done by the Palestinians but definitely there can be a contribution from Canada or other countries.”

Barak said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be keen to showcase Israel for Harper, who he regards as a friend.

“They look at the world with the same values. They have the same approach not only to general politics but to economics,” said Barak.

“They would both like to see a better world, for Canada, for Israel, for everybody.”