Ya’ara Saks explains the photo with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas—and her ‘yes’ vote

Ya'ara Saks
Ya'ara Saks stands up to speak during Question Period in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 13th, 2022. © HOC-CDC Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services

Embattled cabinet minister Ya’ara Saks says it was her “choice” to meet with the leader of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas last week in Ramallah, and that includes posing for photos that show him holding her arm and hand.

The Liberal MP for a heavily Jewish Toronto riding, the Canadian-Israeli has been heavily criticized by community members since those photos were posted March 14 on the official social media account of Canada’s foreign minister Mélanie Joly. (They were not posted on any of the accounts belonging to Saks herself.)

Saks says she “was asked to go” with Joly on a diplomatic swing through Israel and the West Bank, and is adamant that despite the optics, it was “important for me to be in that room.”

Ya’ara Saks joins The CJN Daily to explain the background to THAT photo, what she told Abbas and why she voted “yes” to a controversial NDP motion passed Monday in the House of Commons that many say rewarded Hamas terrorists.

What we talked about:


And joining us now from Ottawa, is the Minister for Mental Health and Addictions. The Liberal MP For York Centre. Welcome back to the CJN Daily.

Ya’ara Saks: Thanks for having me back. Ellin.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Well, yes, we tried to reach you, of course, because you’ve been at the centre of a storm in the Jewish community since the photo, and also outside, since that photo was released. But I want to ask you about this whole circumstances about the trip before we get even that far down the road. How did your trip get organized? Can you tell us the back story to this whole Middle East trip, and why you got to go.

Ya’ara Saks: I was asked to go on this trip with Minister Jolie. We felt it was important that there was a Jewish and frankly Israeli Canadian perspective and voice at the table when we were meeting with our counterparts in Israel and in the West Bank. And you know that’s why I do this work. I’ve been involved in peace building and trying to stabilize Israeli society in a place of peace alongside Palestinians for over 30 years, and having my voice and my work there was important. It was important to me, and I felt it was important to the community, especially right now. The community’s in trauma. The community is increasingly feeling alienated since October seventh, and to have my voice and presence in the room at these meetings creates really a framing of accountability of the government, understanding that we need to make sure that Jewish voices are heard when we are in these meetings.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Why did Melanie Joly want to go? And why didn’t the Prime Minister go? What’s preventing him from making the trip? Do you know?

Ya’ara Saks: So I can’t speak to the Prime Minister’s scheduling and timetable minister. Jolie has consistently she I mean, this is not her first. This was not her first visit to Israel since October seventh. She has been wholeheartedly committed to really ensuring that Canada’s longstanding foreign policy of fostering and working towards a stable Middle East, and peace in the region, including a 2-state solution that even in this time, we’re working with allies in the region. Everyone, as you well know, before October seventh, normalization discussions were starting to happen with Saudi Arabia and it’s important for Canada to be in those spaces. She went to Saudi Arabia. She went to Kuwait and the UAE before joining with me in Israel and the West Bank, so that we can make sure that we’re keeping all parties at the table talking, even when these conversations are hard. Canada’s role in these spaces. You know our Pearsonian legacy stands for itself in wanting to be that bridge builder, and that’s why she was in the region, and that’s why I was asked to join her.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Okay. So we know that the a lot of photos from the Israel trip with the President’s wife and round tables. Then this photo comes out about Ramallah. Can you please tell us what the whole background to that photo OP was?

Ya’ara Saks: Well, let’s start with the background of the trip itself. We were in Israel, where we met with. We’re also Ed Bisham. We went down to Kibbutz Aza. We met with family members who lost loved ones, including a Canadian, Eyelet, who lost her son Netta

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Epstein

Ya’ara Saks: Absolutely.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Killed by Hamas, Yeah.

Ya’ara Saks: And even the takeaway of my time with her, of watching a mother grieving with the wristwatch of her son on her wrist everywhere she goes.
She shared with us about Sivon and Noor, Netta’s neighbours, who were also killed.

Ya’ara Saks: but we also met with Israel Katz. We also went to Yad Vashem. We also met with Ron Dermer and we also met with First Lady Michal Herzog.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Yeah. But nobody cares about that. Everybody’s fine.

Ya’ara Saks: People should care about that, and.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Right. They do, but

Ya’ara Saks: The purpose of this trip is really about the whole trip, and

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Well, now, yes Mr. Katz is angry at Canada. He tweeted that after the vote on Monday in Parliament, that it’s a betrayal.

Ya’ara Saks: Well, let’s get back to

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: So back to your trip first.

Ya’ara Saks: I think the framing of the trip and why we’re there is important, and who we met with was important. And in going to both Jerusalem and also going to Ramallah, it was important for me to be in that room. It’s important for me as an Israeli Canadian and someone who, as I said before, I have been working in this space towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians for close to 3 decades, and it’s a life’s work and it’s something I’m wholeheartedly committed to and to be able to be in that room, to speak with Mahmoud Abbas, and ask and ensure that at every opportunity I’m able to say to him and to other Palestinian Authority officials that the release of hostages is first and foremost on the Canadian agenda, of addressing this conflict. And for Hamas to lays down its arms, and that we want to see the violence end. And the PA will play a role in that.

And to have me in the room as a Jewish, Canadian and Israeli to be able to ask Mahmoud Abbas the hard questions of how he is going to reform his government, how he’s going to ensure that Hamas plays no role in the future governance of Gaza, how we are going to make sure that hostages are released, how we are going to move forward from this, because Israelis deserve safety and security. And you have to be in the room to have those hard conversations. You can’t not be in the room.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Did he have to hold your hand? I mean, that’s the thing everybody wants to know. So let’s just talk about it. If you don’t mind.

Ya’ara Saks: But these are just diplomatic meetings with protocols. They are. There are standard practices that happen, and I am not exempt from them when I choose to be in the room to have those hard conversations, and that was my choice. Because that having that Jewish voice in the room, to ask him those hard questions. To me, that is the substance of my being there.

It’s unfortunate folks are are fixated on a photo rather than the important diplomatic work that was done.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: How are you addressing the fallout? Because people want to know: could you have avoided holding his hand or him grabbing your hand. We want to know exactly what happened. Did you want to hold his hand? Was it part of the condition?

Ya’ara Saks: I understand that the Jewish community is in a state of trauma right now, and that every day since October seventh has been an emotional day. Every day since October seventh has been an emotional day for me and my family, you know? The rise of antisemitism has put everyone on high alert about everything. But again, going to these meetings is about having the hard conversations with those who are in places of power to be able to address them and find a way forward, and that includes hard conversations with people we don’t agree with, with people who have said things in the past that have been hurtful and harmful to the community, because my priority in being in those rooms is to ensure that on the path forward that there is accountability and safety and security for Israelis.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Understood. Was that the condition that you could ask all these questions and have these hard conversations with the photo OP. As part of it.

Ya’ara Saks: It’s not about conditions. No, I reject that premise.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: So you chose to pose with him.

Ya’ara Saks: I reject that premise as well. It’s not about choice there. These are…

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Ya’ara you just said…

Ya’ara Saks: I had a choice to join a diplomatic meeting. There are protocols associated with diplomatic meetings that include photographs of the meetings took place. I will not back down from the opportunity to be a Jewish voice in the room with the Palestinian Authority to ensure that the key issues that are a concern of this community when it comes to antisemitism, when it comes to terrorism, when it comes to ensuring that there is safety and security for Israelis. I will not shy away from the opportunity to be that voice in the room. And those hard conversations are part of diplomatic practice and protocol. Stephen Harper is shaking hands with Mahmoud Abbas. Anthony Blinken meets with Mahmoud Abbas. All of those are photographed and hands are shaken, and pictures are taken.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Right, but it looked like he was holding on to you, and you didn’t, really like it. So people are parsing it.

Ya’ara Saks: I would rather that they asked me the content of the meetings, rather than focusing on a photo, because it’s the substantive conversations and hard conversations that happen in those meetings, that matter.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Okay, let’s move on, then, to the criticism that you’ve gotten from the community and outside as well, how have you dealt with that? So we’re wondering like what it’s been like. What are people saying to you?

Ya’ara Saks: What I’ll say, and what I always say to the community, and you know I take this from my time when I worked in the P. 2 P. Track at the Oslo Courts, when Yitzhak Robin was still alive. He said, “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with those who you need to make peace with.” And that is exactly what I was there to do, was to understand from an Israeli perspective. and also from the perspective of the Palestinian authority, where they’re at in this moment, and where are there opportunities when they are available, to move forward. And what role Canada will play in those spaces. It’s important for us to know. And I know that the community, you know, when a community is in trauma, it’s really really hard to take a step back and understand how important laying the groundwork for this is. But that is my job. It’s what I’ve done for 30 years. It’s what I’m doing now and it’s work that I have committed to with my heart and soul for safety and security for a country that I love, which is Israel. My family is there. Like many other families here in Canada who have family and friends back there. It matters and I won’t shy away from doing this work.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Is this a signal? Should Canadians now see–and I’m not just talking Canadian Jews, but Canadians–see this trip, and then what happened Monday in Parliament as a signal that it’s Canada’s choice down the road after the war ends or after there’s a ceasefire, that this is the person, this is the organization that the Canadian Government would like to see in charge in any forward motion of peace.

Ya’ara Saks: So what I would say is that Canada’s long standing policy, and position, foreign policy position, when it comes to the conflict, remains and continues that we are a friend and ally to Israel, and that a 2 state solution is really what we want to be a part of bridge-building. That means we talk to everybody. That means we talk to the Saudis. That means we talk to the Kuwaitis. That means we talk to the UAE. That means we talk to the Egyptians. We talk to the Jordanians, and we continue to do that work. Canada is a country of multilateralism.
We work with our partners, we work with our allies, we work with friends in the region, and we work with people that we don’t necessarily agree with. We have those conversations, because that is the only way that we are going to get to some sort of stabilized path forward. It’s not going to be tomorrow. It may not be next week, but we have to. You can’t have it happen without doing the work.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Okay, can we talk about that..

Ya’ara Saks: Motion, the NDP motion.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: So I want to go in there.

Ya’ara Saks: So the NDP original motion when I saw it, like so many in the Jewish community, I was deeply concerned about it. Under no circumstances would a position of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state be acceptable.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: So why not vote it down? Could you explain to our listeners how they decided just to change it as opposed to just defeat it. What was the backroom dealing that was going on?

Ya’ara Saks: It’s not about backroom dealing. If the Government voted no there was no guarantee that it would pass or not pass. I wasn’t willing to take that risk, that on the record of Parliament there would be a unilateral declaration for a Palestinian State, I, along with many colleagues, were determined to ensure that the language of such a motion in Parliament, if adopted. ensured that it talked about Hamas being a terrorist organization, that it ensured that Hamas’s role in October seventh was unequivocally clear, that it would be part. Parliamentary motions don’t dictate Canada’s foreign policy.

Ellin Bessner: Except, she {Melanie Joly] said it kind of did. The next day, she said, “Well, we’re going to listen.”

Ya’ara Saks: I’m sure she said what she said to defend her position, because basically, the motion was substantively changed and brought it back in line with our longstanding foreign policy. Right?

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: If was a big nothingburger, except for the…

Ya’ara Saks: Yeah, exactly. We won the day We won the day exactly.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: ..,for the military exports thing which was already on the table anyway.

Ya’ara Saks: We won the day, Ellin, and I’ll tell you why we won the day. Because at the end of the day the amendments recognized the things that matter to us as a Canadian government, and that matter to Jewish Canadians, which is, that Hamas must release hostages and lay down its arms, that a ceasefire cannot be one-sided, and that we recognize that the humanitarian suffering in Gaza can’t continue. But they can’t be human shields. That Israel has a way to defend itself, and that we are committed to a two-state solution vision. It won’t be tomorrow, but we stay on that path.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: That’s what I said in my story, that it was a big nothingburger, except for the optics, which is what’s making people really upset: the keffiyehs on various different sides. The watermelon pins. The language and people accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing.

Ya’ara Saks: And I hear all of that. And what I will say is this: As a member of the Jewish community, and the opportunity to be a member of Cabinet, is that we don’t work in symbolism. We work in having clear and tangible positions, that we will defend in every place, whether it’s motions in the House, or whether it is in the Middle East region, or whether it’s on the international stage, and that work I am committed to it, and will continue.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Was there any reason you weren’t able to be there [in Parliament] in person and vote in person and speak in person, and only voted by electronic voting.

Ya’ara Saks: I had a lot of other commitments on my agenda. As a minister, I am pulled in 10 million directions at once, and had to be in more than one place at that time.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Okay. Lastly, you are, I’m sure, aware of the protest outside your constituency office this week. This time it was from Pro-Israel activists, not anti-Israel activists, which is a change. So what was that about? And how did the office handle it? How do you feel about that?

Ya’ara Saks: What I will say is, our community is not homogeneous in its positions. We have a diversity of views. Like many other communities. This is one part of the community that felt it needed to be loud in its in its opinions and discourse. What concerns me frankly, is that the level of divisiveness that is happening right now, personal attacks on me, personal attacks on my daughter and her safety has come out of this. You know, as we well know, Sinat Hinam, the fall of the Jewish people happens from Sinai Hinam, from free hate. And I would urge all of us, while we may disagree on things, we can agree that the community is in pain and in trauma and that we need to find a way to collectively address the antisemitism that is so horrific and pervasive. We need to work together. And that everyone has the right to protest, however, I would encourage all of us to find the place where Klal Israel is important, as important to value as sharing differences of positions, in what is such a hard and difficult time for all of us.

Ya’ara Saks: That’s all we have time for, apparently, Thank you so much.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Can you tell us what happened to your daughter.

Ya’ara Saks: I can share it off the record. I won’t talk about it.

Ellin Bessner/The CJN Daily: Thanks a lot for being on the CjN Daily, always a pleasure.

Ya’ara Saks: Okay. Thanks.


The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here. Hear why The CJN is important to me.