Liberals, Israel and the lessons of history

Liberal and Israeli flags
Liberal and Israeli flags

Israel and the chaos of the Middle East are unlikely to be high on the agenda of the Liberal government, which is good, since this is a region where they should tread slowly and carefully. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team will be pressed to take positions, make pronouncements and allocate taxpayer money under the labels peace, human rights and humanitarian aid, there are important lessons from the failures of 10 years ago that should be considered first.

In contrast to former prime minister Stephen Harper’s very independent stance, the Liberal “old guard” clings to an intense faith in discredited international institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. This is also the legacy of former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson and the model (or myth, according to critics) of Canada as a “third power” and “honest broker” on issues of war and peace. Such misplaced faith is reinforced by European policies, although their initiatives, particularly regarding Israel, have never proven wise or successful.

Indeed, within days of the Liberal victory, advocates of this failed approach began to lobby Trudeau and his new foreign minister, Stéphane Dion – who brings gravitas and experience to this position. On Israel, Dion is indeed a friend – I had a number of discussions with him in Jerusalem about 15 years ago. But he and others in cabinet and Foreign Affairs will be pressed by less friendly voices, pitching grand plans based on good intentions that are easily manipulated.

The disastrous 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, remains a case in point. The Liberal government at the time was a major sponsor of this ostensibly moral initiative, but the reality was an anti-Israel hate-fest that led the United States and Israeli diplomatic delegations to walk out in protest.

It was at the Durban NGO Forum that groups claiming to promote human rights launched their boycott and demonization campaigns against Israel. And under the Liberals of the 1990s, millions of dollars in Canadian aid funds were given to radical non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promoted the Durban warfare strategy without due diligence or adult supervision. Harper put an immediate end to this.

A significant portion of the misspent money was channelled through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which then funded NGOs, with little or no supervision. Of CIDA’s $2-billion annual budget, one-quarter went to the Middle East, including many grants to radical and anti-Israel NGOs that promoted boycotts. Recipients included Montreal-based Alternatives, BADIL (which exploits the refugee issue for political warfare), Kairos, Medical Aid for Palestinians, Médecins du Monde, the Mennonite Central Committee, and World Vision. The activities of these groups fuelled the conflict, and in 2006, CIDA’s budget and activities came under closer supervision, with changes in leadership and funding. (In 2013, CIDA became part of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.)

The Liberal government of the 1990s also funded the Rights and Democracy framework, whose activities were often highly secretive and inconsistent with Canadian values, to understate the case. In 2009, it provided grants to the Palestinian NGOs Al Haq and Al Mezan – two leaders of the NGO Durban agenda.  Israeli court documents allege that Shawan Jabarin, who heads Al Haq, was involved with a terror group. These groups routinely accuse Israel of “genocide,” “crimes against humanity,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “massacres,” and “slaughtering civilians.” When these activities were exposed, Rights and Democracy was shut down.

Officials who ran these anti-democratic organizations and benefited from the government’s generosity have waited for 10 years to regain the money and influence they had under the previous Liberal government. The question is whether the lessons have been learned, or whether these mistakes and the resulting damage will be repeated.