Tories, Liberals spar over Israel

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary defended a flyer favourably comparing the Conservatives’ record on Israel and anti-Semitism to that of the Liberals as “fact” in a heated exchange in the House of Commons Nov. 19.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler

Pierre Poilievre was responding to a question of privilege from Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who charged that the claims made in the flyer are “false, misleading, prejudicial and slanderous.”

Cotler demanded that the government stop sending out the flyers and apologize. His Mount Royal riding was one of several across the country whose residents received the flyers in their door last week. The mailings were apparently targeting areas with a significant Jewish population that are held by the Liberals.

Poilievre reiterated some of the points made in the flyer, starting with the assertion that the Liberal government “willingly” continued to participate in the 2001 United Nations Durban conference against racism, even after it had become a forum for anti-Semitism. He contrasted that with Harper having been the first national leader in the world to withdraw from the second Durban conference this year.

He also repeated that the Harper government was the first in the world to cut funding to the Hamas-led government in Gaza when the Liberals were calling for an increase in funding.

Poilievre said Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff stated twice in 2006 – in August and in October – that he believed Israel had committed war crimes in its conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“He may have changed his mind later on, but the reality is when the pressure was on, that is what he said.”

Poilievre also recalled that in the early 2000s, it was Conservative MP Stockwell Day, now the international trade minister, who was the leading advocate for the inclusion of Hamas and Hezbollah on Canada’s terrorist list, while the then-Liberal government said these organizations were running social programs and “only backed down under pressure from Day.”

Poilievre, citing a series of newspaper reports, also noted that the then-Liberal MP for Toronto’s Etobicoke Centre riding was on record as saying afterward that he favoured delisting Hezbollah, and that a Liberal MP had marched in a “pro-Hezbollah” rally in Montreal in August 2006

He went on that the Liberals’ current public security critic is on the record as saying in 2006 that the Harper government’s one-sided pro-Israel stance is “dangerous” and a “reversal” of Liberal policy.

“He is absolutely right,” Poilievre said.

“The MP for Ajax-Pickering said there has never before been a so strongly pro-Israel government, exceeding even George Bush…

“If [Cotler] is uncomfortable with these facts, he should speak up against his party. He is learning the discomfort of being in a party that speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

Cotler, who was a delegate to the first Durban conference, said it makes no sense to suggest that his participation means he supported the anti-Semitic opinions expressed there. The Liberal government condemned the conference, and he has repeatedly spoken out against it, he said.

“The government of Israel publicly commended Canada for its participation at Durban and it condemnation of anti-Semitism. Does this mean the government of Israel is also identified with anti-Semitism? That’s as absurd as it is false,” Cotler said.

He also underlined that it was a Liberal government that pronounced Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations in 2002. “For the Conservatives to take credit for that is massive political identity theft,” he said.

At this juncture, Toronto-area Conservative MP Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs, heckled that Cotler was “splitting hairs.”

As for Ignatieff’s war crimes charge, Cotler said it was “taken out of context” and he has since apologized.

Cotler also said the flyers are partisan and shouldn’t have been mailed to constituents at public expense, terming it a “prima facie breach of [parliamentary] privilege.”

The flyer, titled “Committed to Canada’s Jewish Community,” compares the Conservative and purported Liberal records on fighting anti-Semitism abroad, combating terrorism and support for Israel. It asks the question: “Who is on the right track to represent and defend the values of Canada’s Jewish community?” It then lists the leaders of the four national parties.

Toronto-area MP Joe Volpe was audibly agitated as he tore into the Tories last week, calling a flyer sent to his Eglinton-Lawrence riding “unbecoming and unproductive.”

“It’s pretty partisan propaganda paid by the public purse in order to gain advantage,” he said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

“It’s distortions of the truth using the Jewish community as a wedge in the social fabric of… our society.”

Volpe, whose riding has a substantial Jewish population, said the flyer parades falsehood as truth.

On Nov. 18, Ignatieff told reporters that the allegations made in the flyer are “outrageous” and accused the Conservatives of playing “the politics of division.”

“The key point is that support for Israel should not be a partisan issue. Since 1948 there has been a consensus across party lines on support for Israel and a two-state solution… Liberal governments since 1948 have stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel… Nothing has changed, nothing will.”

Montreal Liberal MP Stéphane Dion rose to defend the party’s actions under his leadership during the Commons session.

“The Liberal Party never supported that funds would be sent to the Hamas-led government. What we were asking was whether the funds would reach the people in Palestine. This point of view was the point of view of the government of Israel at the time,” he said.

He denounced the Conservatives for “tarnishing” not only his party’s reputation, but also that of Cotler “who has dedicated his life to Israel-Canada relations.”

Claiming that the Liberal government knowingly participated in an overtly anti-Semitic conference is “a serious misrepresentation of the facts, and we cannot let that stand. If we do, it means that political parties can use taxpayers’ money to say whatever they want, and to stoop as low as you can imagine, and that there is no limit to the lies they can tell the unwitting public,” Dion said.

Cotler’s position was also defended by Bloc Québécois member Michel Guimond and Windsor, Ont.,-area MP Brian Masse of the New Democratic Party.

Government House leader Jay Hill defended the propriety of the mailings, saying the Tories aren’t the only party doing it.

“My point is that all parties are participating in this type of communication and it is grossly unfair to suggest that it is only the Conservative Party that is doing so,” he said.

Speaker Peter Milliken said he would look into whether there has been a breach of privilege and report back to the House on the matter.

One of the recipients of the flyer, Alan L. Simons, who lives in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s, wrote to The CJN: “As a Jew, I find its content offensive, especially when [John] Duncan [the Vancouver Conservative MP who sent it to him] implies that I need the Conservative Party to represent and defend my values as a Jew.

“I am appalled by this form of politicizing. In addition, I doubt very much if there are many Jewish people living in my neighbourhood. Therefore, I believe this form of literature will most certainly backfire. And in doing so. I am sure Duncan has helped the anti-Semites use yet another means of promoting their hatred.”

With files from Paul Lungen