Continuity and Change in the Canada-Israel Relationship

For many in the pro-Israel community, the election of a new federal government has raised questions about the future of the Canada-Israel relationship and whether the unparalleled friendship developed over the last decade will prove to be durable or anomalous. These questions reflect the strength of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s record, which brought bilateral ties to new heights, rather than any deficiency in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s orientation toward the Jewish state.

Although Trudeau and Harper’s tone and style are dramatically different, Mr. Trudeau has been unequivocal, both as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister, that support for Israel will remain a fixture of Canadian foreign policy under his stewardship, firmly rooted in a cross-party consensus and reflecting shared values, interests and opportunities.

The Trudeau government has been tested early on this pledge. Consistent with his longstanding opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel, which he has called “an example of the new form of antisemitism in the world,” Mr. Trudeau criticized new EU labeling guidelines for Israeli products as an instance of “initiatives that single out Israel above all others.”

Canada’s new Prime Minister also made a point of meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the recent Paris climate change talks. The new Canadian Prime Minister indicated his desire to accept Mr. Netanyahu’s invitation to visit Israel again – Trudeau first visited Israel in 2008 with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – and to “continuing the strong friendship that Canada has shown towards Israel for decades and will continue in ongoing times.”

While these statements and gestures are important, actions speak louder than words. Perhaps the most significant test so far of continuity in the Canada-Israel relationship occurred at the UN General Assembly toward the end of 2015. The Trudeau government maintained Canada’s principled vote, which began under Paul Martin and became further entrenched under Stephen Harper, opposing the GA’s annual series of one-sided resolutions condemning Israel.

The Trudeau government will have to overcome some challenges with which the previous government did not have to contend. First, the Liberal Party is not monolithic in its orientation toward Israel and the Middle East. There will be internal pressure on the Prime Minister to shift Canada’s support for Israel.

Second, Liberal governments have traditionally fostered closer relationships with the public service than their Conservative counterparts. Within this context, Ministerial staff will need to exercise a degree of vigilance to ensure policy development and implementation closely reflect the Prime Minister’s vision.

Third, the Trudeau government has repeatedly emphasized a more multilateral approach to international relations, which can invite pressure to abandon more independent-minded positions in favour of an anti-Israel international consensus.

Last week, a CIJA delegation held its first meeting with Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion. The atmosphere at the meeting was warm, with Mr. Dion expressing a keen desire to work closely with CIJA on a range of files of interest to the Jewish community. The Minister emphasized that Canada’s substantive policy vis-à-vis the Middle East would not change, noting that the government would like to play, in their view, a more active role in contributing to regional peace and stability.

Minister Dion underscored Canada’s commitment to Israel and enthusiastically pledged to grow the bilateral relationship with a particular emphasis on expanding trade. With regard to the Palestinians, he noted a desire to assist in helping foster circumstances in which they will feel a vested interest in pursuing peace with Israel.

Perhaps the most striking shift pending in Canadian foreign policy pertains to Iran, a country with which Canada currently has no direct diplomatic relations. Minister Dion cautioned against interpreting any Canadian re-engagement as a sign of accepting Iran’s human rights record or the negative role in the region. Rather, it reflects the new government’s belief that it is better to dialogue and engage with countries, even if there are strong disagreements.

While there will be differences in tone and approach, the fundamental goals of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East are unchanged. Canada remains a strong ally – a term Dion has used repeatedly – and close friend of the Jewish state, continuing a mutually beneficial partnership that has advanced the two democracies’ shared values and interests for almost 70 years.

About the Author
Based in Ottawa, Shimon Koffler Fogel is President and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) - the advocacy agent of Canada's Jewish Federations.
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