OTTAWA - Israel has received private assurances Canada stands ready to help defend the Jewish state, but just how far the Harper government intends to take that commitment remains unclear.
Newly released documents say Defence Minister Peter MacKay told Israel's top military commander, Maj.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, during a 2011 visit to the Middle East, that "a threat to Israel is a threat to Canada."
The statement came a year after cabinet colleague Peter Kent was upbraided as junior foreign affairs minister for telling a Toronto-based publication that "an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada."
The declaration, appearing in an internal summary of MacKay's trip to Israel, could have important implications given the increasing military co-operation between the two countries.
Under the Harper government, Canada's support of Israel has been unwavering, even in the face of mounting international tensions over Iran's nuclear program.
When he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Ottawa earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasized Canada wants to see a peaceful resolution in the troubled region, but it's unclear how far Canada has committed itself in the volatile region.
A spokesman for MacKay said the defence minister's comment was intended as an expression of support.
"Minister MacKay was making a statement of political solidarity with the Israelis and reminding our friends there that they are not facing global security threats alone," said Jay Paxton in an email.
The Israeli embassy declined comment, but pointed to remarks Netanyahu made to Canadian-Jewish publications following a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama on March 5, 2012.
"I appreciated the fact he made clear that when it comes to a nuclear-armed Iran, containment is simply not an option, and equally in my judgment, and perhaps most important of all, I appreciated the fact that he said Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself against any threat," the Israeli prime minister said.
Canada's military and industrial relationship with Israel has grown enormously. The two countries are negotiating or have signed a series of defence-based agreements over the last few years, details of which have been withheld.
The two countries do not have a binding defence arrangement, similar to Canada's obligations under NATO, but critics have begun to question the details and extent of the emerging relationship.
"These kinds of comments have consequences," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.
"We're talking of a very sensitive part of the world. Every word you use has to be chosen carefully and so the question is: Is this the position of the Canadian government — or the Conservatives — when comes to a conflict in the Middle East?"
MacKay's assurances, unearthed by a Queen's University researcher using the federal access-to-information law, came during a Jan. 9-12, 2011, bilateral visit, where MacKay also met with Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
To underscore how intertwined trade and defence have become, the Israeli prime minister emphasized "the Iranian threat," but also expressed interest in buying waterbombers from Montreal-based Bombardier and asked MacKay to convey a letter to Harper.
Speaking to Barak, MacKay "stated Canada was a solid partner and that both countries were looking through the same filter" on the region, said the Feb. 14, 2011, summary.
Dewar said it's no secret the Conservatives have a one-sided approach to the Middle East, but he believes it will ultimately damage relations with Washington.
"It's fine to say we are friends of Israel and we support Israel. Sign me up, absolutely," he said. "But Canada's role in the world is to be able to talk to people the Americans can't talk to and to go to places where the U.S. can't."
MacKay and Barak signed a memorandum of understanding following their meeting, a document that acts framework to guide defence co-operation.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information shed light on the scope of that co-operation, which extends to the exchange of classified information, defence science and technology research, and defence procurement.
On the military side, the Canadian air force has taken the lead and "is looking at deepening relations with Israel given its modern and dynamic Air Force," said a July 27, 2011, briefing prepared for MacKay.
Also last year, Brig.-Gen Eden Attias was quietly named as Israel's defence attache in Ottawa, the first to be appointed in North America outside of Washington since 1948.
The countries have agreed to exchange secret defence information, a matter that required considerable negotiation, according to the documents.
Another aspect of the arrangements raises the possibility of joint military procurement. The two countries co-operated extensively when Canada went shopping for drones during the Afghan war and settled on the Israeli-made Heron.
The agreements also open the door to more Israeli participation in Canadian defence projects, specifically Elisra Electronics Systems Ltd.'s work on the Halifax-class frigate upgrade.