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Harper's Middle East visit: A triumph?

Harper's Middle East visit: A triumph?Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not pictured) in Jerusalem, Israel on Tuesday, January 21, 2014. The lingering effects of Harper's visit to the troubled region this week are likely to have little impact on its vast web of conflict. At home in Canada, however, they might well continue to resonate — possibly right into next year's federal election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper left behind a bitterly cold Canadian capital, his poll numbers sagging and his government poised to face renewed criticism over the Senate expense scandal.

He arrived to brilliant sunshine for his inaugural visit to the Middle East, where he was lustily cheered by Israelis and treated to the kind of rock-star welcome he rarely receives back home.

The lingering effects of Harper's visit to the troubled region this week are likely to have little impact on its vast web of conflict. At home in Canada, however, they might well continue to resonate — possibly right into next year's federal election.

During his visit, Harper played to his core constituency and affirmed his strong support of Israel, but essentially stayed true to Canadian foreign policy, observers say.

Despite his vocal backing of the Jewish state and his refusal to criticize Israel publicly while in the Middle East, Harper also had a constructive visit to the West Bank and Jordan, where he came bearing well-received gifts for his Arab hosts.

"The rhetoric and symbolism of the trip all sent a strong message that Canada is a strong and unflinching ally of Israel," said Fen Hampson, director of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

"But Canada's official policy, especially when it comes to the legality of settlements, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, hasn't changed one iota. The trip doesn't sit well with Canada's Muslim community, but that is not Harper's retail politics constituency."

The prime minister wrapped up his visit Friday on what was surely an emotional high.

In Israel, he was mobbed at the Western Wall by well-wishers who chanted his name and reached out to touch him.

He was praised time and again by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials as a man of courage and honour.

He was feted at an Israeli state dinner in his honour, where he sang "Hey Jude" to the guests.

In Jordan, he was wined and dined at King Abdullah's splendid palace high on a hilltop in Amman, where the king referred to him as a "brother" and lauded him for standing by Jordan as it deals with an influx of Syrian refugees.

Even the Palestinians were friendly, despite Harper's passionate pro-Israeli stance. Harper's formal announcement of $66 million in aid to the Palestinians was many months in the making by both sides, and ultimately well received.

"Canada is a sovereign state and has the right to adopt the position it pleases," Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, said diplomatically. "We hope that in future things will change."

But some say Harper may have put at risk Canada's other bigger, more important relationship — the one with the United States — by refusing to verbally repeat his government's written condemnation of Israeli settlements, and by stridently continuing to condemn Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently leading a major new peace initiative between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The U.S. is also heavily involved in Western efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

"It is actually negative for the relationship with the U.S., which is far more important than our relationship with Israel," said Ferry de Kerckhove, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt and senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's foreign affairs school.

Staying silent on the settlements won't make Kerry's job any easier when he confronts the hardliners of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet during negotiations, he suggested.

Kerry's recommendation to President Barack Obama will also be key in deciding whether the Keystone XL pipeline gains approval, said de Kerckhove.

"Strategically, morally, and relationally, it's the wrong tack right from the beginning."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said Harper should have invited opposition members, among others, to join a 200-plus entourage that included several cabinet ministers and MPs.

After all, Dewar noted, Harper invited former Liberal prime ministers, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, on his plane to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral last month.

"It was very much about positioning and not necessarily diplomacy," said Dewar. "The people who ended up on the plane were friends of the Conservative Party of Canada."

Dewar, along with de Kerckhove, gave Harper credit for his visits to Jordan and to Ramallah.

Harper's trip also raises questions about whether he raised Canada's profile — perhaps negatively — in the complex, and often deadly, regional conflict by expressing too much public affection for Israel.

But some hold the view that the so-called Arab Street will soon forget Harper was ever in the region, if any of them even noticed at all.

"It won't play for much because we're not an important player in the Middle East," said Hampson.

"The notion advanced by some that Canada's position as an 'honest broker' is now deeply compromised is partisan fiction. We never were and never will be."

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