Under the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada pledged to stand beside Israel “through fire and water,” but critics say the government of Justin Trudeau hasn’t stood by Israel for even four months.
It was a Jan. 24 statement by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion that raised concerns – at least in some quarters. Dion delivered a message to his Israeli counterpart warning against expansion of Jewish settlements.
“Canada believes strongly in a two-state solution and that negotiations provide the only viable path to peace,” he stated. “As a steadfast ally and friend to Israel, Canada calls for all efforts to be made to reduce violence and incitement and to help build the conditions for a return to the negotiating table. Unilateral actions, such as Palestinian initiatives toward statehood in international forums and continued Israeli settlements, are unhelpful and constitute serious obstacles to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”
“WE’RE NOT EQUATING VIOLENCE BY ANY MEANS ON BOTH SIDES, BUT THERE HAVE BEEN ISSUES, AND WE NEED TO BE IN A POSITION TO POINT THAT OUT”
“We’re not equating violence by any means on both sides, but there have been issues, and we need to be in a position to point that out”
A day later, Joe Pickerill, Dion’s spokesperson, told the Jerusalem Post that, “We’re steadfast allies and good friends, and good friends can occasionally deliver tough messages, but it’s by no means to suggest that we’re somehow retreating from any kind of support of Israel.”
Canada was not trying to create a “faux balance” by equating violence by either side, Pickerell told the Post. “We’re not necessarily equating the violence by any means on both sides, but there have been issues, and we need to be in a position to point that out.”
Dion’s remarks came only days after Israel announced the end of an 18-month settlement freeze, during which the Palestinian Authority not only failed to resume negotiations with Israel, but continued violent incitement, praised terrorist attacks on Jews and named public spaces after terrorist perpetrators.
Commentators noted the difference in tone between Dion’s statement and those of the previous Conservative government, which was acknowledged to be steadfastly pro-Israel. Within the Jewish community, elements from left and right interpreted Dion’s comments differently.
Hart Schwartz, acting chair of JSpaceCanada, a left-wing Zionist organization, said, “Any true friend of Israel should indeed point out the harm caused to Israel by the expansion and proliferation of settlements. A good friend does not let a good friend drive drunk. The ongoing development of settlements is bad for Israel, bad for Israeli democracy, bad for Israel’s economy and bad for Israeli security.
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“First, they are widely perceived to be an effort to sabotage a peace treaty that would include Palestinian sovereignty.
“Second, when all 27 ministers of foreign affairs of the European Union claimed in 2012 that the expansion threatens to make a ‘two-state solution impossible,’ followed by the failure of the Kerry initiative [to bring the two sides back to negotiations based on pre-1967 borders], Israel cannot be surprised that the response, in 2015, is the odious labelling requirement on Israeli goods from the West Bank.
“Third, settlement expansion leads to despair among the disenfranchised Palestinian population, making extremism that much more attractive and undermining Israeli security from within.
“[The Jan. 24 Israeli] announcement giving the green light to more settlements should be criticized by the Canadian government, not ignored. While not condoning violence from the Palestinians, the foreign minister’s balanced, careful, comments, should not be seen as anti-Semitic, but rather as decidedly pro-Israel,” Schwartz said.
Paul Rotenberg, vice-president of the right-wing Toronto Zionist Council, offered a different perspective. He suggested Dion had ignored the context of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which he traced back decades.
“ISRAEL HAS ASKED THE ARABS TO RETURN TO THE NEGOTIATION TABLE SO MANY TIMES YOU CAN’T COUNT THEM”
Before 1948, Jews could build anywhere in the area, he said. When Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it excluded Jews from living in the area, but that was reversed in 1967 following the Six Day War. He also wondered why the period of “ethnic cleansing” is held up as some sort of standard that should be emulated today.
Turning to the issue of peace talks, Rotenberg said the blame for the absence of negotiations lies squarely with the Palestinians.
“Israel has asked the Arabs to return to the negotiation table so many times you can’t count them.”
In fact, Rotenberg continued, “[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas has resisted pressure from [President Barack] Obama to go to the negotiating table and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s requests to go to the negotiating table.”
“If Dion wanted to be balanced, he would have addressed Abbas and asked him why he doesn’t return to the negotiating table,” he added.
Abbas has a plan for Judea and Samaria, which “is ethnic cleansing. He’s said all Jews must leave,” Rotenberg added.
University of Toronto pyschology professor Stuart Kamenetsky, a Tory supporter, said, “I’m obviously not pleased with Dion’s comments. It’s not even about the settlements. It’s back to the moral equivalence between Palestinian murderous terror and Israel’s actions. It’s the hollow and superficial approach of condemning violence on both sides to end hostilities. This shows no understanding of the situation, let alone history. ”
Commenting on Dion’s statement, Avi Benlolo, CEO of Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “We are disheartened to learn the government seems to place the blame for the failure of peace talks on the settlements, when it is clear that settlements are used as a smokescreen to hide the real reason for lack of progress: the utter unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to accept the existence of Israel within any borders whatsoever.
“Abbas himself admitted he rejected a peace offer in 2008 ‘out of hand.’ If the new government wishes to play a significant role in helping the peace process along, it must first address the ongoing provocation in the West Bank, the rockets fired by Hamas, and the general acceptance of and praise for anti-Jewish violence and incitement to terror.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) cut the government more slack. Shimon Fogel, the organization’s CEO, said, “We identify no change in the level of support for, or appreciation of the challenges facing Israel. While the Liberal government’s overall approach favours engagement (e.g., Iran), there has not been any change in its understanding of the considerations that should determine the orientation of Canadian policy.
“Justin Trudeau has been unequivocal and clear: Canadian policy under a Liberal government will not change as to the nature and quality of support for its only democratic ally in the Middle East, Israel,” Fogel said.
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However, Fogel suggested the government was on the wrong track in focusing on Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace. “We reject that view, insofar as the actual historical record is absolutely clear on the extent to which various Israeli governments have been willing to compromise in order to achieve peace, including the dismantling of communities in disputed territory,” he said.
“In a recent meeting with the minister, CIJA asserted that there has been virtually no construction in Judea and Samaria over the last number of years and none at all outside the settlement blocs already established. So the false narrative of settlements being a defining impediment is more a fiction today than a reality. The only true obstacle is the rejection of the legitimacy and permanence of a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland.”
Conservative spokesmen Tony Clement and Peter Kent said Dion’s statement did not blame Hamas for recent terrorist rocket and knife attacks. “The statement only expressing ‘concern,’ and by omission, equates such terrorist attacks with Israeli settlement construction. This is unacceptable.”