Canada and Israel

"Though it is always nice to enjoy the strong support of an advanced Western country, Canada’s influence on the international scene is limited; Ottawa is not Washington."

The flags of Israel and Canada (photo credit: REUTERS)
The flags of Israel and Canada
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Wither relations between Canada and Israel? This is the question many are asking in the wake of Justin Trudeau’s victory over Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Canada’s election last week.
At least part of the answer to the question is that it does not really matter. In the larger scheme of things with numerous Canadian-sized nations in the world Ottawa’s impact is minimal.
Though it is always nice to enjoy the strong support of an advanced Western country, Canada’s influence on the international scene is limited. Ottawa is not Washington.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that the strong, principled support shown by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which began in earnest back in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, has brought tangible benefits internationally. Canada’s unabashed backing of Israel probably made it a bit easier for the US under the Obama administration to defend Israel in various international fora.
The Harper government’s opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord also helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his campaign – which ultimately failed – to prevent the clinching of that deal. At least Netanyahu was not a lone head of state exhibiting rejectionism.
It is doubtful the transition from a Conservative to a Liberal government in Canada will mark a dramatic change in relations between Ottawa and Jerusalem. In-coming prime minister Trudeau has made his pro-Israel sentiments clear on a number of occasions. During a foreign policy debate on September 28 among Harper, Trudeau and the left-wing New Democratic Party’s Thomas Mulcair, the question of Israel and the Palestinians came up only once.
Trudeau remarked: “All three of us support Israel, and any Canadian government will.” On Independence Day, Trudeau videoed a special message stating, “It is a source of great pride that Canada first recognized Israel’s independence in 1948, establishing formal diplomatic relations on May 11, 1949. Since then, our two countries have shared an enduring bond of friendship, rooted in our shared commitment to peace and democracy. We applaud Israel’s remarkable accomplishments across many fields, and congratulate her people on their achievements.”
And in a recent Tweet, Trudeau declared that “the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a McGill University alumnus I am disappointed.”
Still, it would be unrealistic to expect Trudeau or his Liberal Party members to match Harper and the Conservatives in their unapologetically pro-Israel stance. Ultimately, Trudeau has a government to run in Ottawa and the political constituency that swept to power the Liberals after a long hiatus has a more critical approach to Israel than do Conservative voters. The same goes for many members in Trudeau’s party.
Trudeau himself will be less inclined to defend Israel as emphatically as his predecessor. It is difficult to imagine Trudeau taking to task journalists for asking him to single out Israel for criticism, for instance, as Harper did during a press conference in Jerusalem in the midst of his January 2014 visit.
Because Harper’s support for Israel was based on principle, not politics, he was on occasion willing to pay a political price. In 2010, for instance, Canada failed to gain a much-desired seat on the UN Security Council, something attributed in part to the country’s strong support for Israel.
Once again, it is difficult imaging Trudeau paying such a price; even if he wanted to, his party would not let him.
And of course Trudeau has said that he supports the Iran nuclear deal and the renewal of relations with Tehran.
In short, Liberal Party pro-Israel is not the same as Conservative Party pro-Israel. It is not just because of the faction within the Liberal Party that is hyper critical of Israel. It is because even mainstream Liberals tend to be less whole-heartedly supportive of the Jewish state. This was on display during the 2006 Second Lebanon War when Liberals – including then-prime minister candidate Michael Ignatieff – accused Israel of war crimes instead of calling on Hezbollah to stop kidnapping Israeli soldiers and firing rockets at Israeli civilians.
It is too early to say what will be the impact of Trudeau’s victory on Israeli-Canadian relations as well as on relations between the new government in Ottawa and the Jews. But it can be said that in the near future no one in Ottawa will outdo Harper when it comes to the passion, consistency, sincerity and intensity of his support for the Jewish state.