Days before the federal election, the Liberal party ran an ad in the Canadian Jewish News promising, “On Oct. 19, our government will change. What won’t change is Canada’s support for Israel.”
This message effectively echoes what Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau told the Jewish Independent in an exclusive interview in July. However, what candidates say and what elected officials do can sometimes differ. When the Liberal party was last in office, their approach to international affairs, particularly during votes at the United Nations, took a “go along to get along” approach that too often saw Canada siding with despotic regimes against Israel.
Jewish and Zionist voters may have thought that Conservative rhetoric on Israel was just that, rhetoric. But very shortly after Stephen Harper became prime minister, the Gaza war erupted and Canada became Israel’s most vocal ally on the international stage. Our country would remain such for nearly a decade.
Critics – inside the Jewish community and beyond – often saw cynical motivations in the Conservative government’s position vis-a-vis Israel. Either it was motivated by political expediency, Jewish votes and financial support or millenarian Christian theology. Harper repeatedly insisted that the government’s policy was motivated simply by the principle of standing by a democratic ally and the Jewish people, nothing more or less.
Whether the decade of Harper’s unapologetic support for Israel is the reason, or whether Canadians have come to the judicious conclusion that Israel is not the malevolent entity that some extremists proclaim, Harper’s view is now mainstream in Canada. So much so that the Liberal party felt obligated to promise that there would be no change in approach. Even the New Democrats, who have a history of harboring some of Canada’s most strident Israel-haters, officially takes a pro-Israel position.
The NDP’s collapse in Monday’s election may change that. It was during the NDP’s weakest period, in the 1990s, that anti-Israel extremists were able to seize the Middle East policy reins of the party. Leader Tom Mulcair steadfastly dragged his party back to a more reasonable position on the topic, but he will certainly be gone soon from the leadership and everything he did and stood for seems likely to be analyzed for a place to lay blame, whether deserved or not.
Of course, outside of a small cluster of voters, Israel and Palestine were not core issues. They were certainly not issues that turned the election. In the end, it was a desire for change and, perhaps, a backfiring of Conservative attack ads and rhetoric that led to the outcome.
The Conservatives blanketed Canada with ads promising us that Trudeau was “just not ready,” which lowered expectations so dramatically that when he was able to hold his own in successive party leaders debates, he could hardly help but exceed the low threshold the Conservatives had created for him among Canadian voters. This, combined with a comparatively positive Liberal campaign and the fact that, in the final days, it was clear that the Liberals, not the NDP, were to be the choice for change, seems to have created the perfect storm that led to the majority government.
We now have the opportunity to see if the Liberal party will indeed stand by its word. Liberals have repeatedly insisted that they are every bit as committed to Israel’s security as the Conservative government. Now they have a chance to prove it. If they do, it will be evidence that support for a Jewish, democratic state, our greatest ally in the region, is not a Conservative value, but a Canadian one.