The Canadian government’s double take on Israel

While Trudeau distinguishes his approach from that of his predecessor — once a close ally to Netanyahu — his government’s stance on Israel is still unclear. 

By: /
April 12, 2016
Canadian and Israeli flags are seen during a demonstration in support of Israel, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa August 6, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion laid out his foreign policy approach recently in Ottawa, summing it up as something he calls ‘responsible conviction.’

“My values and convictions include the sense of responsibility,” he explained. “Not considering the consequences of my words and actions on others would be contrary to my convictions.”

While Dion explained how this approach impacts the current government’s stance on climate change, the Saudi arms deal and religious freedom, among other issues, he did not elaborate on how the government would move forward in its relationship with Israel — one of the defining elements of the previous government.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had maintained strong ties with Israel while in office, and often reiterated that “Israel has no greater friend than Canada.”

Since then, the Liberal government has sent mixed messages about what future relations between the two nations will look like.

“There has been a change in rhetoric and that's welcome, but it hasn’t transferred to actual policy yet,” says Hamed Mousavi, who teaches international politics at Carleton University.

Earlier last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that while Israel is a “friend,” his government “won't hesitate from talking about unhelpful steps like the continued illegal settlements” and “will continue to engage in a forthright and open way,” essentially signaling that the days of Canada’s unquestioning support of Netanyahu’s government are over.

The Liberals first signaled a shift away from the Conservative government’s past approach when Dion called the expansion of Israeli settlements “unhelpful” and said that they “constitute serious obstacles to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace” in a statement in January. However, when Israel seized 579 acres – the largest land grab in recent years – in the West Bank three weeks ago, the European Union released a statement criticizing Israel, saying it violated international law. Canada thus far has remained silent.

More recently, Dion urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to “review” its appointment of law professor Michael Lynk as Special Rapporteur on human rights for Palestine after UN Watch and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs claimed Lynk was “anti-Israel” and Conservative opposition also condemned the appointment.

If Dion is considering the consequences of his words and actions on the Israel file, his intentions are yet to emerge, as messages around the issue appear somewhat inconsistent.

Here we look at a few pieces of the policy puzzle, laying out where the Trudeau government stands so far: the two-state solution, the UN’s approach, the boycott movement and the future of the relationship between the two governments.

The deterioration of the two-state solution and Canada’s stance

Canada has supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which laid the groundwork for peace in 1967. Through this approach, Canada supports Israel's right to peace and the protection of its citizens, while also recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and supporting the creation of a sovereign state.

The two-state solution has always been a declared goal, said Mousavi, but there has been little effort to achieve this by Canadian governments in recent times, beyond declarations of support (an issue that applies far beyond Canada, as Jasmin Habib wrote last year).

The Trudeau government appears to “tip toe diplomatically” around the occupation issue, Mousavi said, despite a push by the Liberals to be seen as a real player on the international stage after the Harper years. Meanwhile, France is lobbying for an international peace conference this spring that would lead to the resumption of face-to-face talks between Israelis and Palestinians before August. Even the White House is said to be weighing the idea of supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would provide the foundation for a permanent peace agreement, something which France failed to get Obama to agree to last year.

At a time when the peace process has eroded, and violence has permeated the Israel-Palestine region, some analysts have said that Trudeau is in an opportune position to have more balanced relations with both sides of the conflict, though this has not manifested itself in Canada’s recent dealings with the UN. 

In December Trudeau voted against the annual resolutions on Palestine in the UN General Assembly. When questioned about Canada’s past support of Israel in the UN and how continued support could impact Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, Trudeau said that votes singling out Israel in the UN aren’t an effective or helpful part of international discourse and that his position will not change while he is in power.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University and author of Why I am a Zionist, said Trudeau will run into trouble positioning Canada as an internationalist on the Israel-Palestine issue due to the UN’s bias towards Israel.

“We shouldn't overestimate Canada's role but we also shouldn't completely negate it,” says Troy.

“The more Canadians or anyone tries to make foreign policy…on the Middle East based on the international community, the more they're going to run into the 40-year phenomenon of the UN singling out Jewish nationalism,” he adds. “Trudeau made it very clear he is pro-Israel...Most mainstream Canadian politicians and most mainstream American politicians are in favour of Israel. They want to protect Israel and understand that it is a democracy and want to see it flourish.”

The opposition to BDS

On the issue of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – an international campaign meant to isolate Israel using economic and political pressure – the government has been more outspoken.

In late February, the House of Commons passed a motion formally condemning the BDS movement, which has grown globally as public scrutiny over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the living conditions for those in the Gaza Strip. Trudeau and many Liberals voted in favour of the Conservative motion that called upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian groups or individuals to promote the movement, which it says promotes the "demonization and delegitimization" of Israel.

It is not often that parliament condemns a non-violent civil society movement, so the motion is a sign of an intense position, says Yves Engler, an activist and author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. It exposes for those who didn't already see it that Trudeau's talk about a more balanced position was fraudulent,” Engler continues. “The impact of something like that is to basically scare people into position.”

While some Canadian Jewish groups have praised the motion against BDS, other groups have called it an attack on freedom of speech in Canada. 

“When you condemn a political issue such as BDS, regardless of whether it is wrong or right, what you're doing is limiting what is considered acceptable political talk and political thought within society,” says Mousavi. “In a truly democratic society, all of these issues, even if they are difficult, should be open to debate.” 

The motion is reminiscent of the Conservative government’s “memorandum of understanding,” signed with Israeli leaders in 2014, which called the BDS movement “the new face of anti-Semitism.” The message was then echoed at the UN days later when former Canadian Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney conflated the movement with hate speech and violence, and said that the government is taking a "zero tolerance" approach to BDS. In a speech to the Israeli Knesset in 2014, Harper said that Canada’s support of Israel is “more than a moral imperative,” but also of “strategic importance.”

Mira Sucharov, a professor of political science at Carleton University specializing in Israel-Palestine relations, says that while Trudeau claims to want to return to a more fair-minded approach, the anti-BDS motion and its characterization of the movement as a form of anti-Semitism is not helpful.

What’s next?

As the situation in Israel and Palestine remains hostile and prospects of peace dim, Sucharov said she hopes Trudeau will use Canada’s long-standing friendship with Netanyahu to push Israel to participate in renewed peace talks. However, she said she is not optimistic that the Canadian government will take a tougher stance, other than more verbal prodding.

“The next question is whether he will use that friendship as well as insights about how diplomacy can best be deployed,” Sucharov says.

Therein lies a problem with the government’s aim to return to “honest broker” status, says Mousavi. “If the Palestinians see you as being very close to Israel, then you already lose ground as an honest and hopefully objective broker between the two sides…being very close to Israel and wanting to solve these issues, I think there is a dilemma there.” 

As often with political matters, what is said and what is done do not always align.

“The issue right now is that we are climbing out of the Harper era...I think Trudeau is trying to find his seat on Israel in a direction that will be quite different from his predecessor,” Sucharov adds.