The Great Divide: Public Opinion vs. Canadian Government Policy on Israel/Palestine
(This op-ed was originally published in Ricochet Media)
In the first all-party leaders’ debate in Canada’s 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper, arguably the most pro-Israel Prime Minister in Canadian history, challenged Justin Trudeau to clarify his attitude toward Israel. Harper asserted that “there is a movement at the United Nations to isolate and denigrate the state of Israel… The best friend and ally this country has is in a very dangerous region, and we will never go along with that anti-Israel position.”
Justin Trudeau’s response? “All parties are in agreement on this.”
Since taking office, Prime Minister Trudeau has demonstrated that, when it comes to Israel, he is indeed in agreement with Stephen Harper.
In less than 18 months in office, the Trudeau government has voted against no less than sixteen United Nations resolutions critical of Israel. Perhaps the most notable example is a General Assembly resolution which reaffirmed Palestinians’ right to self-determination, including the right to have an independent state. Adopted in December 2015 with the support of 177 countries, that resolution was opposed by Israel, the United States and Canada, along with the tiny island states of Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Nauru.
One year later, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution declaring that Israeli settlements on territory intended for a Palestinian state were a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of…peace” between Israel and Palestine. The unanimous Security Council vote (with the U.S. abstaining) reflected a decades-long international consensus on the illegality of the settlements.
Although that resolution enjoyed overwhelming support of Security Council members, including Canadian allies France, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the Trudeau government remained conspicuously silent after its adoption. As the Canadian Jewish News reported, “amid the controversy surrounding last month’s UN Security Council resolution slamming Israel for settlement activity and calling all territory it captured in the 1967 war illegal, Canada has kept a low profile and reiterated its support for a two-state solution.”
Then, on February 6, 2017, Israel’s Knesset passed a ‘Settlement Regulation’ Law which purported to legalize settlements. The law was plainly intended to flout the Security Council’s unanimous will, so Trudeau’s government was left with no option but to admonish Israel, albeit meekly. In a statement issued quietly, Canada’s new Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the Settlement Regulation law was “unhelpful to the advancement of the peace process in the region.” At the same time, she reiterated that Canada is a “steadfast friend and ally of Israel” and reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to “Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries and free of terrorism…”
It is instructive to compare the Trudeau government’s response to Israel’s ‘Settlement Regulation’ law to another foreign policy hotspot, Crimea. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea after a violent revolution toppled its pro-Russian but democratically elected President, Viktor Yanukovych. Prior to the annexation, a referendum was held in Crimea in which 97% of Crimeans voted for integration into the Russian Federation. The turnout was 83%. Trudeau’s reaction to the annexation was to describe Vladimir Putin as a “bully” whom he would “confront” and to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
Much of the international community regards the Crimean referendum as invalid, primarily because it was held while Russian troops occupied Crimea. But in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there has been no referendum at all in which occupied Palestinians have voted to live under Israeli rule. Indeed, if such a vote were held today, it is virtually certain that Palestinians would vote overwhelmingly for independence from Israel, notwithstanding the presence of Israeli troops on occupied Palestinian territory. Yet the Trudeau government regards Putin as a ‘bully” whose country deserves to be sanctioned, while it considers Israel’s government, which by Canada’s own admission has illegally annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, as Canada’s “best friend and ally” whose “flagrant violation under international law” is merely “unhelpful.”
Israel’s apologists often complain that Israel is subjected to a double standard. That is true, but what those apologists aren’t telling you is that the double standard favours Israel.
Why does this double standard prevail in Canada? In a country that purports to be a democracy, one would expect the answer to be: ‘because Canadians want it that way.’ Yet a new survey done by EKOS Research Associates makes it crystal clear that Canadians do not want it that way.
The survey asked respondents whether they had a negative or positive view of Israel’s government. Of those who had an opinion, 46% had a negative view and only 28% had a positive view. Conservative Party supporters were on the fringes of public opinion, with a 58% positive view. The average for supporters of the other four parties was 11% positive and 63% negative. Remarkably, 55% of supporters of the governing Liberal Party had a negative view of Israel’s government – 2.5 times as many Liberal supporters who had a positive view (22%).
When asked whether they believe Canada’s government was biased towards Israel or Palestinians, 61% of respondents said pro-Israel and 16% said pro-Palestinian. Excluding Conservative Party supporters, 74% viewed Canada’s Government as having a pro-Israel bias while only 9% saw it as pro-Palestinian.
The divide between public and elite opinion is even greater on the question of whether criticism of Israel’s government is anti-Semitic. Both federally and in Ontario, elected officials of the Liberal and Conservative parties recently supported motions condemning the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS. Although neither of those motions explicitly described BDS supporters as anti-Semites, the debates that led to their adoption were rife with explicit allegations that that is precisely what BDS supporters are. Conservative Ontario MPP Gila Martow went so far as to imply that the BDS movement is like the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet hardly anyone outside of the Conservative and Liberal caucuses believes that criticism of Israel’s Government is necessarily anti-Semitic. The EKOS survey found that 91% to 100% of Liberal, Green and NDP supporters do not believe that criticism of Israeli government policy is necessarily anti-Semitic, and that even 80% of Conservative supporters hold that view. Nonetheless, elected officials from both the Conservative and Liberal Parties darkly declare that calling for peaceful economic sanctions on a state that has been violating the Fourth Geneva Convention for decades is the ‘new anti-Semitism.’
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When it comes to Canadian political support for Palestinian rights, the arc is bending.
Days ago, the Green Party of Canada announced that it had adopted a policy calling for sanctions on Israel., including an arms embargo. That policy also urges the International Criminal Court to prioritize its investigation into potential Israeli war crimes. Moreover, it calls on the Government of Canada to recognize the state of Palestine, which the vast majority of states have already done, but which Canada has failed inexcusably to do. The Green Party’s sanctions policy was adopted with the support of 90% of party members who voted.
The Green Party’s sanctions policy passed overwhelmingly despite fierce condemnation from apologists for Israel’s apartheid regime. Those apologists included Conservative MP Peter Kent, who thundered in Parliament that “the Green Party has been co-opted by extreme activists who, in an obsessive campaign of prejudice against Israelis, threaten the party’s own credibility and relevance in Canadian politics.”
If the ‘Honourable’ Mr. Kent paid the slightest attention to Canadian public opinion on Israel, he would know that the credibility and relevance being threatened are his own.