How Trudeau changed course on the Jewish state

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, shakes hands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris in 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO photo)

Canada-Israel relations have hit a low point, with Israel saying it intends to file a complaint over Ottawa’s approval of a controversial United Nations resolution on Palestinian statehood.

Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, told the Globe and Mail on Nov. 21 that his country intends to lodge a formal protest over Canada’s vote.

“We regret the Canadian change and we will express our regret officially to the Canadian representative in Israel, hopefully next week,” Barkan told the Globe. “We think the resolution is not a substantive resolution, but an attempt to delegitimize Israel and is part of the whole package that should be rejected out of hand.”

He said Israel was given only a few hours notice on Nov. 19 that Canada intended to vote for the measure.

“It was a surprise … we had no inclination or hint that Canada would change its vote on the regular annual UN resolutions and we trusted Canada, knowing that this is a circus of anti-Israeli resolutions,” he said.

“The UN is not court. It is an exercise in public relations and they have an automatic majority that votes against Israel … so we don’t think Canada should co-operate with this exercise.”

The embassy could not accommodate The CJN’s request to speak about this issue with Barkan, whose term expires this month.

Changing course from previous years, Canada voted for a measure that refers to “occupied Palestinian territory” – east Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites included – and appears to put the onus for peace in the region solely on Israel.

Titled “The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” the resolution was sponsored by North Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Palestine. It “reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to their independent State of Palestine” and “an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967.”

It cited a 2004 International Court of Justice ruling on Israel’s security barrier, which said that “the construction of the wall by Israel, the occupying power, in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem … severely impedes the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

Critics blasted that part of the resolution, saying the barrier has prevented countless Israeli deaths by stopping Palestinian terrorism.

The final vote was 164 in favour and nine abstentions. Five countries voted against the measure: Israel, the United States, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The resolution was part of the same 20 non-binding anti-Israel measures that are adopted at the UN every year at this time. Since 2006, Canada has voted against this particular resolution.


Canada’s official policy does not recognize “permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967: the Golan Heights, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.” Canadian policy refers liberally to “occupied territories” to describe post-1967 lands, but it has never called them “occupied Palestinian territory.”

Canada’s explanation of its vote was as follows:

“Canada is strongly committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel. Canada’s vote today is a reflection of this longstanding commitment.

“Canada voted in support of this resolution as it addresses the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Canada strongly supports the international consensus on a two-state solution, so that both sides can have a secure and prosperous future.

“Canada would also like to strongly reiterate our stated position and concern that there are too many resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation which unfairly singles out Israel for criticism. We would prefer to see the international community channel its efforts towards helping both sides to resume direct negotiations and work towards achieving a lasting peace for both peoples.”

Barbara Harvey, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said this country maintains its “strong opposition to the singling out of Israel for opprobrium at the UN,” and noted that Ottawa “has voted against the vast majority of these yearly Israel-related votes.”

Indeed, on Nov. 15, the UN General Assembly’s fourth committee adopted eight other resolutions targeting Israel. Canada voted against six and abstained on two of them.

Until now, this country’s only Yes vote was on a non-controversial motion calling for assistance for Palestinians displaced by conflict.

Hillel Neuer, the Montreal-born executive director of UN Watch in Geneva, blasted Canada for its move. This year’s vote change “is dramatic,” he tweeted. If the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to shift, it “could have moved from a No, as it voted last year with U.S., to an Abstain, as Australia voted. Instead, they jumped all the way to a Yes – for the first time in years and breaking bi-partisan tradition.”

Trudeau, Neuer tweeted, “is trading Canada’s bedrock principles of fairness & equality for a UN Security Council seat. By voting for a resolution co-sponsored by North Korea & Zimbabwe, he has entered a Faustian bargain with dictatorships that does not bode well for a free & democratic society.”

Canada is vying for a two-year seat on the Security Council beginning in 2021.

In another tweet, Neuer said the resolution condemns Israel for “ ‘occupying’ (the) Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem & holiest sites of Judaism (and) ignores hundreds of Palestinian rockets just fired at Israelis.”

Michael Levitt, the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of York Centre, told The CJN that he’s heard from many constituents who have expressed “concern and disappointment” at Canada’s UN vote.

He noted, however, that Canada voted against six other “prejudicial” anti-Israel resolutions at the UN. Those “unfairly singled out Israel for condemnation, ignoring the crimes being perpetrated by many of the resolutions’ sponsors.”

Levitt added that if the intent of the resolution on Palestinian self-determination “was to affirm international support for a two-state solution, its lack of context, failing to recognize the historic and current security threats faced by Israel, undermines that cause.”

He said he “strongly” believes in Canada’s long-standing support for a two-state solution. “A just and lasting peace, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, can only come from direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, not from one-sided UN resolutions,” said Levitt.

“I will always stand against the institutionalized demonization of Israel at the UN.”

There has been speculation, mainly on social media, that Canada changed its vote because the minority Liberals were influenced by the New Democrats.

Renan Levine, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, believes that is “a possibility.” But his political science colleague at U of T, Nelson Wiseman, said Canada’s vote “has nothing to do with the NDP.”

Wiseman also said he “totally” dismisses the argument that Canada changed its vote to curry favour for a Security Council seat. He said the influential Arab bloc at the UN is upset with Canada over a variety of issues and won’t vote for it anyway.

Meanwhile, Jewish advocacy agencies expressed alarm over the change of position. Canada “joined the anti-Israel chorus at the UN,” read a press release from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

Canadian support for the resolution “represents a dramatic departure from a 10-year record of principled opposition to UN resolutions that single out Israel for condemnation and ignore Palestinian intransigence and provocations aimed at sabotaging efforts to advance peace and reconciliation,” it continued.

Joel Reitman, CIJA’s national co-chair, observed that neither this nor any of the other resolutions acknowledged “the obscene barrage of Palestinian-launched rockets and missiles raining down on Israel’s civilian population, (which) reflects just how distorted and one-sided these resolutions are.”

Jeffrey Rosenthal, CIJA’s other national co-chair, said Canadian support for a resolution that refers to “disputed territories” as “occupied Palestinian territories represents a distressing departure not only from the Canadian voting record at the UN, but a betrayal of longstanding Canadian foreign policy that rejects prejudgment of the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The resolution unfairly implies that Israel is responsible for Palestinians’ self-determination, said Avi Benlolo, the CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. “In truth, the Palestinians have refused to come to a peaceful resolution with Israel on multiple occasions, including since the Oslo Accords. The resolution further fails to acknowledge that Israel had vacated Gaza in 2005 and that the Palestinians living there have self-autonomy under Hamas.”

Instead of condemning Israel, Benlolo said the UN “should ask the Palestinian Authority and terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah what they have done to improve the lives of Palestinian people.”

The Palestinian delegation to Ottawa praised Canada for taking a “remarkable position” that reflects “all the values and principles Canada represents.”

Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN) also commended Canada’s vote.

The group said that although the resolution has its flaws – “It does not acknowledge the need for a negotiated settlement. It suggests that all that’s needed for peace to break out is for Israel to withdraw to pre-1967 borders, which is far from the case” – it also “makes clear reference to the two-state solution, the right of all states in the region to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized borders, and the principle of trading land for peace.”

While the resolution “is far from perfect” and its language “lacks nuance,” JSpace Canada “cannot accept the status quo in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the occupation,” David Berson, a JSpaceCanada board member, said in a statement. Karen Mock, the group’s president added that it would be “wrong to think this is a harbinger of decreased Canadian support for Israel.”

The vote at the UN came a day before François-Philippe Champagne was announced as Canada’s new foreign affairs minister, replacing Chrystia Freeland, who moves to become deputy prime minister.

In one of his first statements as foreign minister, Champagne told reporters, in French: “I think people in the Jewish community in Canada and across the world see Canada as an ally, but there are times when we must express our opinion and our position as we did yesterday at the UN,” adding that Canada’s friendship with Israel is “strong.”

Canada’s voting pattern at the UN shifted to a more pro-Israel stance under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. It was strengthened further under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and many observers said in the run-up to the last election that there was little daylight between the two parties when it comes to Israel.

Also this year, Canada abstained on a resolution calling for the renewal of the mandate of UNRWA, the scandal-plagued UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees. Harper’s Conservatives had cut all funding to the agency. But in 2016, the Liberals reinstated it, to the tune of $110 million to date.

On another front, CFPN joined its sister organizations in Israel and the U.S. in condemning the statement on West Bank Jewish settlements made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Reversing a long-standing American position, Pompeo said settlements “are not per se illegal under international law.”

Peace Now responded by saying that, “No declaration will change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied territory, in contravention of international law, and that they pose among the greatest obstacles to peace.”