By: Sean Savage
Under the administration of President Barack Obama, much has been publicized regarding the above-average strain in the historically stalwart U.S.-Israel relationship. To the north, a different trend has unfolded with Canada, which has quickly become one of Israel’s most outspoken allies amid growing anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism worldwide.
But after nine years of Conservative party rule led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has elected a new prime minister, Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau, who has promised Canadians a return to “sunny ways.” Will Canadian-Israeli relations fall under the umbrella of Trudeau’s promised bright future, or are darker days ahead?
Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, was Canada’s prime minister from 1968-84. The elder Trudeau is rated by many Canadian scholars as one of the country’s greatest prime ministers, with his accomplishments including preventing the Quebec province from separating.
Justin Trudeau, 43, is a relative newcomer to the political scene. Prior to his election to Canada’s parliament in 2008, he held a wide variety of occupations such as ski instructor and school teacher. As such, he remains a mystery to many political observers.
“The only really troublesome matter as far as Trudeau goes is his flakiness. In his defense, over the three years of his long march to the prime minister’s job, he has grown up quite a bit, or at least he’s given every impression of becoming incrementally more of a serious person,” Canadian author and journalist Terry Glavin, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, told JNS.org.
Trudeau’s father, according to Glavin, “was a bit dodgy on Israel, but not in any dangerous way.” Pierre Trudeau opposed the Arab boycotts of Israel during much of the 1970s, abstained from a number of United Nations resolutions that were critical of Israel, and increased Canadian relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, named his brother Alexandre as his prime minister campaign’s senior adviser. In 2012, Alexandre produced a documentary film, “The New Great Game,” which was criticized by some for downplaying the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and heavily criticizing Israel.
The direction of the younger Trudeau’s official Israel policy remains to be seen. While a “deference to the old Liberal diplomatic establishment,” which is fairly anti-Israel, should be expected of the new government “at least to some extent,” the prime minister-designate himself “is such a new phenomenon that it is really difficult to say,” Glavin said.
In a recent interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Trudeau came out strongly against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calling it “an example of the new form of anti-Semitism in the world.”
“When Canadian university students are feeling unsafe on their way to classes because of BDS or Israel Apartheid Week, that just goes against Canadian values,” said Trudeau.
Trudeau also said that the only way to achieve peace “is a two-state solution of a secure, democratic, stable Israel alongside a secure, democratic, stable Palestinian state.”
Yet Trudeau went against Israeli government policy by calling the recently reached Iran nuclear deal a “good step in the right direction,” though he cautioned that the agreement “needs to be carefully monitored.”
Further, Trudeau has gone after Harper policies that target Islamic terrorism and has promised to end Canada’s airstrikes against the Islamic State terror group as part of a U.S.-led coalition.
At the same time, regardless of Trudeau’s policies, what is the cost for Israel of losing Harper? During Harper’s tenure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israelis believe the Jewish state has “no better friend than Canada.”
In a widely anticipated January 2014 speech at the Israeli Knesset, Harper said Canada would stand by Israel ‘‘through fire and water.”
“Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so. This is a very Canadian trait, to do something for no reason other than it is right even when no immediate reward for, or threat to, ourselves is evident,” he said.
During his term, Harper pushed to pull financial support for anti-Israel NGOs such as Kairos and Rights and Democracy, while also withdrawing Canadian funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In 2009 and again in 2011, Canada declared that it would boycott the anti-Israel U.N. Conference on Racism, which was often used to single out Israel. Harper suspended relations with Iran over its nuclear program, opposed the lifting of sanctions following the Iran nuclear deal, and worked to expand and modernize Canada’s free trade agreement with Israel.
Indeed, Glavin said Harper’s greatest legacy might be establishing a strongly pro-Israel approach as a mainstream policy in Canada—and that may bode well for Israel under Trudeau’s leadership.
“The one big thing Harper managed to accomplish on the Israel front is a shift he engineered in the federal political center to a very pro-Israel posture,” Glavin told JNS.org. “It is no longer just an eccentric Canadian Conservative thing.”
“For all the buzz around Harper’s ‘strident’ support for Israel and his insistence that Canada must be ‘Israel’s best friend in the world,’ all three [major Canadian political] parties have come to want that mantle, more or less,” he added.
This support was evident during a Canadian foreign policy debate in late September.
“The issue of Israel where we most disagree as Liberals with Mr. Harper is that he has made support for Israel a domestic political football, when all three of us support Israel and any Canadian government will,” Trudeau said in that debate.
Since World War II, Canada’s foreign policy has centered on multilateralism and participation in international organizations. But Harper has moved beyond those traditional corridors and has focused on a stronger and more independent Canadian foreign policy.
“I think we will see something of a return to that [multilateralism], although it’s quite possible that Justin Trudeau will rise to the occasion and assert something of the liberal idealism in foreign affairs that Canadian voters have found so attractive in him,” Glavin said.
Christians United For Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. with 2.2 million members, recently appointed a new CEO for its Canadian branch. CUFI said in a statement provided to JNS.org, “Canada has long been a stalwart ally of the Jewish state, and Prime Minister Harper’s friendship with Israel was exceptional. We look forward to the new government continuing Canada’s strong and longstanding support for Israel.”
Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai B’rith Canada, told JNS.org that Trudeau “has clearly stated that he will continue Canada’s support for Israel because it is the right thing to do on the world stage,” and that Israelis “can rest assured that B’nai B’rith will continue to be a strong advocate for the safety of the global Jewish community in Canada, Israel, and abroad.”
Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said, “We are grateful for the positions Mr. Trudeau and his party have taken on a number of issues, including: support for hate crimes legislation; sanctions against Iran; a range of social justice challenges; and a close Canada-Israel relationship—to name only a few.”
In Glavin’s estimation, Trudeau “is very much an untested quality,” but “is surrounded by enough smart people that he is unlikely to do anything too stupid.”