Canada and Israel

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has called for a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine problem.  It might not be the first time that such a solution has been sought, but Canada's support for it is questionable.  Since coming to power in 2006, the Conservatives have been vocal supporters of the Israeli state. Though Canadian policy has often been supportive of Israel, it has never been as strong as it is today under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Under Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada supported the creation of Israel in the aftermath of the Second World War in 1948.  The war had bound Canada to its Atlantic allies, the United States and Great Britain, to an unprecedented extent. Canada’s support for Israel was less about a sense of righteousness for a Jewish homeland and more about support for its war-time allies. Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people required their own homeland, had little impact on Canada's evolving post-war policy. Equally, Canadian public opinion was not really concerned about the political consequences of the establishment of an Israeli state; instead, they were influenced by Christian concepts of the “Holy Land” and sympathy for what Jews had experienced at the hands of the Nazis during the war.  This support of Israel's creation proved to be long lasting.

Canadian prime ministers have had an uncertain relationship with Israel. Though Lester Pearson, the son of a Methodist minister, may have believed in their right to the Holy Land, he understood the political dilemma of Israel's presence in the Middle East.  During the Suez Crisis of 1956, he helped champion the first use of peacekeepers to enforce a truce between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai Peninsula, and Pearson was critical of the United Nations decision to withdraw at Egypt's request in the lead up to the Six-Day War in 1967. Canada, along with many other members of the UN, voted in the aftermath of the 1967 conflict to call on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.  Prime Minister Trudeau supported sending peacekeepers back to the Sinai Peninsula in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War and condemned Israeli aggression during the war with Lebanon in 1982.  Still, these criticisms did little to dampen Canadian-Israel relations.

So despite recurring criticisms of Israel’s actions towards Palestinians, Canadian-Israeli relations were fairly moderate. Our 1996 Free Trade Agreement with Israel is now worth over a billion dollars a year.   Under Prime Minister Paul Martin, Canada abstained from a 2004 UN Resolution calling for Israel to abide by an International Criminal Court ruling that their occupation of the West Bank was illegal. Still, Canada tried to balance its support and its criticism of Jewish state. All of this changed, however, after the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  After the election of Hamas in Palestine, Canada was one of the first countries to boycott their government, declaring them terrorists.  In the following years, Canada has shifted closer to Israel and we have become one of their most vocal supporters internationally. 

It is less clear why this transformation took place.  While Canada has had a changing relationship with Israel, we have never been extremely vocal about it.  Canada has neither been a strong ally or an enemy of the state.  Many have asked why Stephen Harper's Conservatives interrupted this trend.  Since 2006, many commentators have asked what reasons lay behind the Conservative shift. While it's clear that Canada has become closer to Israel, official justifications often revolve around empty, diplomatic lip-service to our shared support for democracy and human rights.  Without more detailed and comprehensive answers, it is difficult for Canadians to understand the decisions of their government. 

Several left-wing commentators have attacked Harper’s position, though without proof, it is often impossible to write anything more than conjecture.  Yves Engler is not alone in  suggesting that it is an attempt to gain Jewish votes, though others rightfully point out that there are few ridings where Jewish votes would make or break an election victory.  Engler also writes that Stephen Harper is appealing to his evangelical, conservative base.  As well, the Conservatives and the Israelis share a desire for a politically and economically powerful military.  For Engler, Israeli actions against Palestine represent an issue of basic human dignity, not ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs, and Canada should adopt appropriate policy without using it to appeal to voters or Conservative ideology.

More recently, James Cairn offers criticism of the Prime Minister's Israeli policy from the left with a different perspective.  He writes that, “in an increasingly competitive global economy, the Harper government is staking Canada’s future on becoming a leader in the field of natural resource extraction and related hi-tech industries. It recognizes Israel as a model of this sort of economy and the type of social system required to support it. Israel is a trailblazer in a range of neoliberal strategies that the Harper government desperately wants to profit from and mimic.” To Cairn, the new direction of Canadian-Israeli relations can be tied directly to other political and economic policies pursued since 2006, comparing Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Canada's own problems with its Aboriginal peoples. Israel's “lessons in mobilizing the emotional basis of national identity to consolidate its version of neoliberal settler colonialism” is a compelling reason for our closer relations, but there remains scant actual evidence of this connection. 

An examination of Canada's policy towards Israel leaves many questions surrounding its purpose.  Speeches from Ministers and Departments offer little concrete information, and commentators are left to propose suppositions and conjecture.  Canadians, whether they agree or disagree with the move, require more information from our government about it.  We deserve to know more about why Canada is no longer content to balance between condemnation and support for Israel.  Government policies should not be justified as necessary simply because the Government has enacted them.  There must be real explanations for their actions beyond empty tributes and political rhetoric.