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How far apart are Trudeau and Harper?

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Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper (File Photos)

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Justin Trudeau proclaimed to the world that “Canada is back.” The implication was that the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper had led Canada’s foreign policy astray, and that the new Trudeau government would steer it back on course to the pre-Harper era.

More than two-and-a-half years later, how has the Trudeau government approached foreign policy toward Israel? Is Trudeau changing Canada’s Israel policy? What is Canada’s policy and how has it evolved over the years? How do recent developments fit into the bigger picture?

In order to answer these questions, we need to take a few steps back from recent developments.

A good place to begin a discussion of Canada’s policy toward Israel is the website of Global Affairs Canada, which includes a page entitled “Canadian policy on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This section has existed since the days of Jean Chretien (prime minster from 1993-2003), and while it has undergone some minor changes in tone, there have been far fewer policy changes than many people might expect.

In general, Canadian policy has been to support both Israel’s right to live in peace and security and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Canada believes that issues such as Israel’s borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the status of Palestinian refugees should be resolved as part of a negotiated settlement in accordance with key United Nations resolutions, such as Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and General Assembly Resolution 194. Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 and believes that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the area and establishes Israel as an occupying power. Canada considers Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to be terrorist organizations pursuant to the Anti-Terrorism Act, but Canada also opposes the security barrier built by Israel as contrary to international law. Finally, Canada has long believed that many UN resolutions addressing Israel, particularly those adopted by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council (formerly Commission), embrace a polemical and one-sided anti-Israel tone that is counter-productive to the cause of peace.

All of the above has been Canadian policy for years. But the devil is always in the details, and so individual Canadian politicians have a fair bit of latitude to interpret Canada’s official policy. The way they do so depends on many factors, such as their political ideology, personal values, and electoral considerations. The end result is that Canadian foreign policy toward Israel can be intensely partisan.

Chretien learned this the hard way in October 2000 when the Second Intifada erupted. As a member of the UN Security Council, Canada voted in favour of Resolution 1322, which supporters of Israel felt unfairly blamed the Jewish state. Although the Chretien government regularly supported most – but not all – UN resolutions addressing Israel, these rarely attracted much domestic attention. But a Security Council resolution at the beginning of the Second Intifada was a higher profile event, and Canada was also in the middle of a federal election campaign.

Chretien faced a backlash from many members of the Canadian Jewish community for which he was unprepared. He later attempted a bit of damage control by drafting a letter to members of the community trying to assuage their concerns that his government was anti-Israel. Meanwhile, Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day criticized the government’s vote on the campaign trail. While the Liberal party ultimately retained its traditional support from many in the Jewish community, it was clear that a few cracks were beginning to emerge.

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As prime minister from 2003-2006, Paul Martin embraced Israel more strongly than Chretien had, but Martin’s short-lived government made only a few changes. Most notably, in 2004, Canada abstained on a General Assembly resolution calling on Israel to comply with an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the construction of a security barrier along the West Bank. Perhaps if the Martin government had lasted longer, it would have continued to move in this direction. Instead, Harper’s Conservatives won a minority government in 2006.

Although Harper was undoubtedly more pro-Israel than Chretien and Martin, it is worth noting that his government did not change all of Canada’s approach to Israel in one fell swoop. For example, during the five years of Conservative minority government under Harper, Canada continued to vote in support of some UN resolutions addressing Israel, including one that affirmed the Palestinian right to self-determination, another that criticized Israeli settlements in the territories, and a third that affirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Conventions to areas under Israeli occupation. In fact, when Lawrence Cannon was foreign affairs minister, he sometimes spoke out to affirm Canada’s position against Israeli settlements in the territories.

However, the Harper government hardened its position after it failed to win a seat on the Security Council in October 2010, and subsequently won a governing majority in May 2011. When John Baird became foreign affairs minister, he abandoned his predecessor’s willingness to sometimes fault Israel. Moreover, Canada ceased to vote in support of any UN resolution addressing Israel.

Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper (File Photos)

Meanwhile, the Liberal party languished in opposition. As party leaders, both Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff struggled to adopt a consistent message on Israel. They faulted Harper for politicizing Israel policy and rejected his portrayal of the Liberals as “anti-Israel,” but they never embraced Israel with the same zeal shown by Harper. Pro-Israel voters noticed: a widely discussed opinion poll claimed that 52 per cent of Canadian Jews voted Conservative in the 2011 election.

After 2011, the Liberal party changed tune. When Bob Rae became party leader, he more clearly embraced a pro-Israel position, as did Justin Trudeau. In February 2015, Trudeau even asserted that “the fact is that on Israel specifically there is very little difference between the policies of the government of Canada under the Conservatives and the Liberal party.”

Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has indeed embraced many of the Harper government’s positions on Israel. But he has not embraced all of them.

First the similarities: the Trudeau government has continued to vote against nearly all UN resolutions addressing Israel. Indeed, in 2016, Trudeau rejected a proposal by Dion, then foreign affairs minister, to change Canada’s vote on some of these resolutions. (Disagreement on Israel policy is likely part of the reason why Dion is no longer foreign affairs minister.) The Trudeau government also opposed the UN’s appointment of Canadian law professor Michael Lynk as special rapporteur on Palestine due to previous public comments Lynk made criticizing Israel. Although Canada had no power to stop Lynk’s appointment, the Trudeau government emphasized that his work in this role does not represent the government.

Finally, Trudeau has been outspoken in his opposition to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel. In 2015, he took to Twitter to criticize the BDS campaign at McGill University. In February 2016, Trudeau and the Liberals joined forces with the Conservative party to vote in support of a Parliamentary motion condemning the BDS campaign. Thus, in many ways, Trudeau’s approach to Israel is similar to Harper’s approach.

But there are some differences too. Most notably, Trudeau broke from Harper by reinstating Canadian funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the branch of the world body that administers Palestinian refugee camps. It has long been accused of spreading anti-Israel views among the Palestinians.

Most recently, the rise of violence along the Israel-Gaza border has created a difficult situation for Trudeau’s government to navigate, particularly after a Canadian citizen was shot by a member of the Israel Defence Forces. A statement issued by the prime minister on May 16 said that Canada “deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people” and was “appalled” that a Canadian citizen was among the wounded. The statement continued that the “reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable” and that Canada is both “engaging with Israeli officials to get to the bottom of these events” and calling for “an immediate independent investigation” to examine the facts.

Trudeau has called for an independent investigation into Israel’s shooting of a Canadian doctor in the Gaza Strip, though it should be noted that his government also spoke out against a UN Human Rights Council resolution that criticized Israel and called for a UN-led investigation. Although Canada could not cast a vote on the resolution because it is not currently a member of the council, Ottawa issued a statement to the council saying that it “cannot support” the “one-sided” resolution because it “singles out Israel, without any reference to other actors.”

Still, critics of the Trudeau government, including Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, believe that the prime minister’s statement was too critical of Israel and failed to mention the role of Hamas in creating the situation that led to violence. Scheer argued that Trudeau had changed Canada’s policy of supporting Israel. (Interestingly, the essence of the Trudeau government’s criticism of the UN resolution following the Gaza violence is not that different from Scheer’s underlying criticism of Trudeau’s earlier statement on the matter.)

Overall, the evidence suggests that the Trudeau government has attempted to walk a difficult tightrope on Israel. It has embraced a pro-Israel stance while eschewing the more passionate rhetoric and tone embraced by the Conservatives. But in terms of substantive policy, the Trudeau government has made only one change — the restoration of Canadian aid to the UNRWA.

No doubt the “little” differences between the positions of the Harper and Trudeau governments vis-à-vis Israel will have a big impact for some Canadians. That’s understandable. But an overall assessment of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy to Israel shows that while there are some differences between the current prime minister and his predecessor, Trudeau’s policy has more in common with Harper than it does with Chretien or Martin.