Pro-Israel lobbyists have had it good in Canada. The outgoing government is wildly supportive and the “Left” party recently purged a number of candidates for publicly expressing pro-Palestinian sympathies. But the election this fall may turn out to be zenith of Israeli influence.
Stephen Harper’s pro-Israelism is legend. At the General Assembly this week, Canadian diplomats voted against the vast majority of the world in opposing a bid to fly the Palestinian flag at the UN headquarters. Further adding to Harper’s Zionist cred, Canada and Israel recently expanded their free trade agreement, which allows products produced in illegal Israeli settlements to enter Canada duty-free. The European Union trade agreement, on the other hand, explicitly precludes Israel from putting made in Israel on goods produced in the occupied West Bank.
Aside from Israel, Canada may be the only country that isn’t officially supporting the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent UN Security Council members US, Russia, China, England and France as well as Germany). While they’ve criticized the accord for not guaranteeing that Iran won’t pursue a nuclear weapon, the Conservatives have repeatedly opposed initiatives to create a nuclear-free Middle East. In the spring, Canada joined the US and Britain in opposing consensus at a Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference that proposed a plan to create a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone. As the region’s only nuclear armed state, Israel objected to the NPT scheduling a conference on a nuclear free Middle East even though it hasn’t signed the NPT. In a bid to protect Israel’s large nuclear stockpile, Canadian diplomats worked to scuttle the meeting.
Painful as it is to admit, Harper has deftly turned Israel to his political advantage. The Prime Minister’s aggressive public defense of Israeli actions pleases elements of his Christian evangelical base and plays well with most of the Jewish community all the while strengthening his neoconservative bona fides. But, the Conservatives have also successfully stoked tensions within the opposition parties over Israel.
At the start of the ongoing election campaign the Conservatives set up a website called, “Meet the NDP,” detailing purportedly controversial statements its candidates have made on various issues, including a number of comments critical of Israel. One NDP candidate the Conservatives targeted, Morgan Wheeldon, was forced to resign by the party leadership because he wrote on his Facebook page that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza last summer and that “one could argue that Israel’s intention was always to ethnically cleanse the region — there are direct quotations proving this to be the case.” Apparently, the NDP has excluded as many as eight individuals from contesting riding nominations because of comments criticizing Israel.
(A pro-Palestinian version of “Meet the Conservatives” would not be based on candidates’ Facebook posts, but the slightly more consequential actions of a sitting Prime Minister. Did you know, it might read, Harper addressed an organization — Jewish National Fund — that practices explicit ethnic/religious discrimination in its land use policies and he invited a representative of a group banned in the US and Israel — the Jewish Defense League — to join his delegation to Israel.)
When the NDP blocked Paul Manly, a filmmaker and son of a former NDP MP, from seeking the NDP candidacy in Nanaimo-Ladysmith at the start of the year, he decided to run for the Green party. (In 2012 Manly criticized the NDP after it failed to call on Israel to release his father after illegally seizing a Gaza-bound boat he was aboard.) The Green Party’s embrace of Manly reflects the growing clout of pro-Palestinian activists inside Canada’s fourth national party.
In November 2013 a Jewish Tribune reporter challenged Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, over her planned participation in a fundraiser for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CPJME). Apparently thinking the interview wouldn’t be read outside pro-Israel circles, May told the Tribune CJPME was “anti-Israel” and noted that she had attended a recent Jewish National Fund fundraiser in Ottawa, even lauding “the great work that’s [the JNF] done in making the desert bloom.” (In actual fact the JNF has helped dispossess Palestinians and Judaize historically Arab areas of Israel.)
While the Tribune likely saw their intervention as a way to pressure May, it sparked a pro-Palestinian backlash that jolted the Green Party’s only Member of Parliament and pushed the party towards a better position on the issue. A few months later the party adopted a resolution critical of Israeli expansionism and when Green Party President Paul Estrin published an anti-Palestinian screed in the midst of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza he was soon forced to resign.
It seems Green Party activists are no longer willing to accept blatant anti-Palestinian sentiment. Moreover, the party leadership has realized they can bleed support from the NDP, particularly among activists, over Israel. If NDP leader Tom Mulcair — who once said “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances” — continues to take anti-Palestinian positions, the Greens are likely to gain more traction among those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, which should in turn push the party to take stronger positions in favor of Palestinian liberation.
Internal fissures within the NDP concerning Palestine are likely to grow. With the most violent and colonialist forces in ascendance, Israel will likely launch another assault on Gaza like those of 2008/09, 2012 and 2014, which left 3700 Palestinians dead, including over 800 children. During last summer’s Israeli attack, Ipolitics described the “NDP’s Simmering Civil War over Gaza.” Deep antipathy towards Harper has tempered some internal criticism, but Mulcair can’t expect this to continue indefinitely if he becomes Prime Minister.
The NDP’s purge of pro-Palestinian candidates, which largely bypassed those with a strong chance of winning seats in the House of Commons, was a depressing reminder of the official dominance of the Israeli perspective. But the large number of individuals targeted, and their disbursement across the country, reflects the growing number of NDP activists critical of Israel.
A historical perspective helps to see the shift. By far Canada’s most significant contribution to Palestinian dispossession: In 1947, Canadian diplomats played an important role in shaping the UN partition plan, which gave the new Jewish state the majority of Palestine despite the Jewish population owning only seven per cent of the land and representing less than a third of the population. The partition plan provided diplomatic legitimacy to a Zionist movement intent on expelling Palestinians from their homeland. But few Canadians understood, let alone protested, Ottawa’s actions. Yet when Israel attacked Gaza last year, tens of thousands demonstrated. In recent years tens of thousands more have voted through their labour union, student union or church to support the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
History may view 2015 as the zenith of pro-Israel influence in Canada.
A version of this article appeared on Electronic Intifada.