In Canada election, support for Israel not up for discussion

Stephen Harper expected to lose to Justin Trudeau, who might slightly readjust Ottawa’s stance on settlements but won’t abandon overall pro-Israel policy

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop at a steel manufacturer in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop at a steel manufacturer in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

The bad news is that with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s predicted defeat Monday in the national elections, Israel is about to lose one of its best friends on the international stage.

The good news is Ottawa will continue to be staunchly supportive of the Jewish state, remaining one of the only countries in the world — with Australia perhaps the other one — that will steadfastly stand with Jerusalem come what may, warts and settlements and all.

As Canada heads to the polls, the race for the premiership is too close to call. But according to the latest polls, the Liberal Party has a slight edge over Harper’s Conservatives, likely spelling the end of his nine-year rule.

Harper is undoubtedly the world leader most supportive of Israel and the policies of various Netanyahu governments. During a press conference last year in Jerusalem, Harper resolutely refused to say as much as one bad word about Israel’s settlement enterprise.

This summer, his government was strikingly unenthusiastic about the nuclear deal with Iran, with Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson declaring that Ottawa appreciates the West’s efforts but will judge Iran by its actions and not its words. Harper, in an interview last week, maintained “a fair degree of skepticism about Iran, about whether it will adhere to the terms of this agreement.”

In short: the Harper administration was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dream team.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Canadian Foreign Minister Robert Nicholson in Jerusalem on June 3, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Canadian Foreign Minister Robert Nicholson in Jerusalem, June 3, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)

And yet, several officials, analysts and community leaders said that while slight adjustments to Canada’s foreign policy should be expected if the center-left Liberal Party comes to power, Jerusalem has no need to worry.

“A liberal government, minority or majority, will stand with Israel because Canadians do,” said Chad Rogers, a founding partner at a Canadian public affairs agency who has volunteered in Conservative campaigns and for Jewish community organizations. “While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the most strident supporter of Israel amongst Western nations in recent memory, he set a new standard for all future prime ministers, not a partisan position.”

Ottawa and Jerusalem may disagree on the merits of Israel’s settlement enterprise, but any Canadian government will defend Israel’s right to defend itself, he said.

“If the Liberals win, Canada and Israel will continue to have a very good relationship, but not as buddy-buddy as that we have seen between Harper and Bibi,” said Simon Rosenblum, a retired public policy analyst and former president of Canadian Friends of Peace Now, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Under the Liberals there will be more criticism on the settlement front, but the Liberals will want to be seen as a good friend of Israel and any criticisms they might have will be tempered with that in mind.”

The Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister, has little foreign policy experience and it is unclear who would be his foreign minister, observers said. At the same time, they added, the same was true of Harper when he came to power in 2006, and he turned out to be exceedingly supportive of Israel.

Justin Trudeau (photo credit: Jean-Marc Carisse/Wikimedia Commons)
Canada’s Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau (Jean-Marc Carisse/Wikimedia Commons)

“He is a true friend and an ally of Israel,” Karen Mock, a human rights consultant close to the Liberals, said about Trudeau. He is supportive of the “Liberal Friends of Israel” group and one of his closest advisers on Israel is Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian justice minister. Cotler, known in the Jewish community for his pro-Israel advocacy, is not running in the current election, she said.

Other observers noted that Trudeau hired Stephen Bronfman, the son of Canadian Jewish billionaire Charles Bronfman, to head his campaign’s fundraising effort, which they said showed his closeness to the Jewish community and, by proxy, to Israel.

Some sources close to the Conservatives, however, point out that Trudeau, whose father Pierre was Canada’s prime minister from 1968 until 1979, also counts some outspoken critics of Israel in his inner circle, including his brother Alexandre, known as Sacha, and former Canadian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel Michael Bell.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Jewish News, Trudeau said he opposes the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, calling it a “new form of anti-Semitism in the world.” He supports “a two-state solution of a secure, democratic, stable Israel alongside a secure, democratic, stable Palestinian state” and rejects unilateral moves by either side.

He called the Iran nuclear deal “a good step in the right direction” but added that it “obviously needs to be carefully and closely monitored.”

A third party home to various extremists

Unlike American politics, in Canada there is a third party to be reckoned with. The New Democratic Party, a center-left list that has never formed the government, was polling at 40% a few weeks ago, but has since dropped to somewhere between 20-25%. Led by Thomas Muclair, the NDP is expected to become the third-largest party and thus could be an important coalition partner in Canada’s next government.

As long as Mulcair heads the party, several observers agreed, its position will be similar to that of the Liberals: perhaps some criticism of Israel’s settlement policy, but by and large very supportive of Israel.

Mulcair, who’s wife Catherine Pinhas Mulcair is Jewish, has been a solid supporter of Israel and Jewish causes and is known not to tolerate anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist sentiments among his caucus.

“That being said, the NDP more than any other party provides a home to many extremists who cloak their anti-Israel views in euphemisms and epithets like ‘pink washing’ or ‘apartheid’ or ‘BDS,’” Rogers said. The party is expected to choose a new leader after the elections and many observers fear Mulcair’s successor might be less well-disposed toward the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, January 21, 2014. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, January 21, 2014. (Flash90)

But come what may, Ottawa will remain one of Jerusalem’s best friends for the foreseeable future. Even when Israel fights wars with civilian casualties, Canadian politicians from all major parties are more sympathetic toward Jerusalem’s viewpoint than their counterparts in Europe, Asia or Latin America, a senior Israeli official said, recounting several briefings in Ottawa during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Even if Harper goes home and Trudeau and Muclair take the reins, Canada will continue to stand by Israel, the official asserted. “The lyrics might change, but the music will stay the same.”

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