In the aftermath of the Liberal ‘red-tide’ that swept across the Canadian provinces on October 19th, Israeli media commentators expressed varying levels of foreboding as yet another measure of uncertainty was added to Israel’s ever-shifting diplomatic sphere. Some remarked that Israel had lost its ‘best friend.’ Others debated if Trudeau would uphold Canada’s strong relationship with Israel. Given Harper’s legacy and the old-Liberal establishment’s critical disposition towards the Jewish State, they had good reason to inquire.
The Harper government’s fiercely defensive support for Israel was a relatively new addition to Canadian politics. Building upon Canada’s Judeo-Christian heritage and a ‘shared-values’ platform, Harper routinely elaborated on the Jewish State’s earned qualities: Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, is a pioneer in combating Islamic extremism and terrorism, and maintains strong trade, defence, and technology relations with Canada. These merits, along with the Conservative government’s moral imperative to stand with Israel in times of international isolation, have fostered contemporary ties of unprecedented strength. In a lengthy and particularly well-crafted address to the Knesset in January 2014, Harper told Israeli MKs in unequivocal terms, “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.” The speech—which in timely reverence drew on the words of a Jewish Rosh Hashanah (New Year) prayer—drew several standing ovations. Two Arab MKs walked out in protest.
Nevertheless, critics have argued that in reality, Canada’s official policies towards Israel didn’t change at all during nine years of Conservative rule. Two days after the election, Carleton Associate Professor and Haaretz commentator Mira Sucharov noted that when it came to the primary issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the lawful status of annexed East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank—Ottawa’s official line remains at odds with Jerusalem’s. This is a valid point. Any proposed changes in these policies should be fiercely debated; they form the very heart of strife. The difference in Harper’s relationship with Israel is that it was based primarily on principles, not politics. This distinction matters. Canada’s support for Israel should be based first and foremost on principle; it’s the right thing to do—especially in light of Israel’s ever-declining security environment and increasing marginalization on the world stage.
Prime Minister Trudeau has thus far maintained the status quo on Israeli affairs. During the Monk debate he refused to make Israel a partisan issue when challenged by Harper, remarking: “All three of us support Israel and any Canadian government will.” This was a wise move. Canadians are either completely split on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or take a neutral stance; an understandable position considering the inherent complexity and unceasing nature of dissonance between Israelis and Palestinians. To Trudeau’s credit, he unapologetically criticized the deplorable BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) and its organizers at McGill University in a March 2015 tweet: “The BDS movement, like Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough.”
The problem with movements such as BDS and Apartheid week—which ironically even Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has disavowed—isn’t solely their toxic influence and callous play on free speech, it’s their increasing nurturing of anti-Semitism in Canada, a pattern no-less echoed across the United States and Europe. While anti-Semitism is in no way synonymous with a healthy criticism of Israeli actions, lines become blurred.
College campuses have unfortunately become the primary host to such groups, who virally disseminate anti-Israeli literature amidst the susceptible minds of Canadian youth seeking engagement on issues of importance. The inherent attraction of group-inclusion and radical discourses is all too strong for many; once on board, a reversal of mindset is unlikely. Oftentimes, it’s not even radical organized groups who spark initial influences; the subtle yet powerful writings of outspoken anti-Israeli academics have become undergraduate syllabus favourites within IR departments across North America, conferring academic legitimacy on the basis of critical thinking—the works of Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Falk top the list (the last of whom was barred entry into Israel upon his farce appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights observance in the West Bank and Gaza). Critical thinking is vitally important to academic discourse; but so is contextualization and agenda-free instruction.
And yet, Israel’s primary security threats are certainly not student-led protests and bullhorn bellowing sit-ins at the municipal art gallery. Israel rarely wastes time even commenting on such events. These are after all, the same people who’ve weathered 6 major wars, 2 intifadas, and a holocaust in the last 75 years. Decades of regional instability has fostered a remarkable resiliency to shifting fortunes. This is primarily due to the fact that the prosperous nation of 8 million resides in a multi-threat environment of perpetual conflict.
To Israel’s north lies Lebanon and arguably the most capable terrorist organization of earth: Hezbollah. Armed with a charter calling for the destruction of Israel and 100,000 missiles, Hezbollah’s preoccupation with preserving the rule of Bashir Al-Assad in Syria (Israel’s northeast border) is stalling any attacks of significance against the Jewish state; at least for now. Beyond the southern border in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula lies a thriving ISIS insurgency. To the southwest lies Gaza and its ruling authority Hamas—the only elected terrorist organization on earth which has successfully institutionalized terrorism from the primary school age. To the east lies the West Bank and Jerusalem, particularly bloody sites in recent days as a result of numerous rumours concerning Palestinian access to the Temple Mount. A Jordanian-sanctioned initiative to install cameras on the temple mount in order to foster transparency was accepted by the Israelis. It was subsequently rejected by the Palestinians. At least Israel’s western border is the vast Mediterranean. If all goes to hell Israelis could always flee into the ocean. They nearly had to in 1973.
This isn’t the end of serious challenges to Israel’s existence. Nemesis Iran lies 1,100km and 3 borders to the east, and has openly and repeatedly called for Israel’s annihilation. Only four days after signing the much-lauded nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—JCPOA), supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led chants of “Death to Israel!, Death to USA!” amidst screaming masses in Tehran; the event was broadcast live on Iranian television. Those still unconvinced of Iran’s resolve for Israel’s demise would be well to acquaint themselves with the Ayatollah’s new 416-page book (which is not available at Chapters), which outlines in great detail how to outwit the United States and destroy Israel. Rhetoric perhaps; nevertheless, the point remains: there’s security challenges, and then there’s Israel’s security challenges. The international community’s compulsive singular focus on Israeli infractions is huge cause for concern. Canada should continue to be a voice to the contrary. We have a moral responsibility to do so.
Solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be encouraged solely through bilateral channels. Palestinian attempts at circumventing bilateral discourse through UN mechanisms and extra-party involvement has only resulted in Israeli counter-actions and a general deterioration of the peace process. Canada has, and should continue to oppose such an approach which relies on incrementalism as a state-building tool. This will never produce two states living peacefully side-by-side. This is something we all want to be realized.
Prime Minister Trudeau has to date upheld a strong Canada-Israel relationship. He has decried the BDS movement, denounced Hamas’ terrorism in Gaza, and publicly celebrated common interests and longstanding relations. While these are promising signs, the true test of principle-based support is yet to come. Harper paid a price for this approach. It is widely acknowledged that part of the reason Canada failed to gain a seat at the UN Security Council was the Tories unwavering support for Israel. If the Liberals are in a similar position, will their support for Israel waver?
On October 1st, in a haunting oratory performance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu silently stared down the entire UN General Assembly for a full 45-seconds in protest of the international community’s silence following Iranian threats against Israel. Canada’s outspoken support for the Jewish state should never cease in such circumstances, lest we become ashamed of our complicity with the lingering silence. Politically-motivated alliances suffice in easy times, and come apart in the seams when there’s something to lose. We should support Israel for the principle of it. We should support Israel because it’s the right thing to do.
Adam Patillo is a M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, and is currently completing an internship with geopolitical forecasting firm Wikistrat. Adam completed his undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University in International Relations, and is working towards a degree in Intelligence Analysis and Terrorism Studies from the American Military University. His special interests include Middle Eastern Security, especially as it pertains to Israel and its security environment.