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Dion’s remarks on Israel come under scrutiny

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Stephane Dion
Stephane Dion

During the recent election campaign, candidates for the Conservative party frequently cited the government’s steadfast support of Israel and suggested that things might be different under a Liberal government. But Liberal leader – and now prime minister – Justin Trudeau always maintained that support for Israel is not a partisan issue.

Last week, Canada’s newly minted foreign affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, gave two interviews in which it was reported that he saw Israel as an ally, but wanted Canada to return to a role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East while improving relations with other countries in the region.

Does that signal a change in Canadian policy?

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), warns against making that interpretation. In his French-language television interview, Dion never used the term “honest broker” and there are no quotes attributable to him in the print article by iPolitics in which he used those words, Fogel said.

In his radio talk, Dion referred to Israel as an ally of Canada and that he wanted to remove Israel as a wedge issue, a clear reference to the Liberal perception of how the Conservatives managed the Israel file, Fogel said.

Dion’s reference to Israel as an ally marks something of a departure. “Previous Liberal governments were never comfortable using the word ‘ally’. That was something introduced with the Harper government,” Fogel stated. “It’s a formulation that continues.”

In the radio interview, Dion was asked if he wished to make Canada’s Mideast policy more balanced, and he replied that he wanted it to be “effective and open,” Fogel added.

Avi Benlolo, CEO of Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, offered a different perspective. He said Dion’s comments are worrisome.

Taking the news report at face value, Benlolo said the suggestion Canada would adopt an honest-broker role between Israel and its neighbours causes some “trepidation. We’re observing the atmosphere. We don’t know which way the wind will blow.”

Benlolo said despite Trudeau’s assurances that Canada would stand steadfastly with its ally, Israel, he worries “we could also go back to where the Liberals used to be, and see a more neutral position,” including at the United Nations.

Canada should take the side of its ally, the only democracy in the Middle East that respects individual rights, he said.

Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said he saw no red flags with Dion’s reported comments. “He said Canada supported Israel and that it is important for Canada to develop positive relations with Israel’s neighbouring countries.” Wiseman said Dion mentions Lebanon, but not Palestine.

As to improving relations with countries other than Israel, Wiseman said that under the previous government, Canada had a mixed record. Canada concluded a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia and signed a free trade agreement with Jordan. But relations with the United Arab Emirates suffered because of a dispute over landing rights at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Dion refers to Lebanon specifically in terms of improving relations, which could rebound to Israel’s benefit, Wiseman said.

In his iPolitics interview, Dion is quoted as saying, “Israel understands that for Canada to be helpful, we need to strengthen our links with countries that are around Israel and should be part of the solution and not becoming completely dysfunctional, as unfortunately, Syria has become.”

He also referenced an episode from the time when Liberal John Manley was the foreign affairs minister and he was asked by his Israeli counterpart to contact a group in Lebanon on Israel’s behalf. That is something Canada should be in a position to do, Dion stated.

Fogel said he takes issue with the suggestion that Canada’s relations with Arab countries suffered because of its strong support of Israel. Canada maintained good relations with Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf states, he said.

CIJA will be “on top of the file to see that the Liberals remain consistent with their oft-repeated statement there would be no difference in policy” between them and the previous government.

An upcoming test might be close at hand. Later this month the United Nations General Assembly will meet to discuss numerous topics, including Israel.

Dion did not respond to The CJN’s requests for comment.