The leaders debate: differences emerge on Israel/Palestine

leaders debateIn the first all party leaders debate held last week, Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau staked out different positions on the thorny issue of Israel/Palestine. It was a matter of seconds at the very end of the end of the debate, so you might not have caught it. But it was significant. See more

in the closing minutes of the first all-party televised debate, Prime Minister Harper raised the issue of Israel, and his strong defense of it. His arguments were not new and there were no surprises in what he said. But the brief rejoinders by Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau (who were given only a few seconds each to respond) reveal significant differences in their respective approaches.

The exchange took place at the 1:50 mark of the 2 hour debate.  

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper:  There is a movement at the United Nations to isolate and denigrate the state of Israel. This government has taken a very clear position. We will not support that. It is wrong. This is the only country in the world whose existence is under threat. It is a friend and ally. (…) The best friend and ally this country has is in a very dangerous region, and we will never go along with that anti-Israel position.

Hon. Thomas Mulcair:    I’ll take no lessons from anyone on defending the right of Israel to defend itself. But we also take a very balanced approach. We want a safe state for Palestinians, and a safe state for Israelis. That’s a balanced approach. That’s the type of approach Canada has always taken on the world stage —that’s the approach that we would take.

Paul Wells:   Justin Trudeau?

Justin Trudeau:    All parties are in agreement on this. We’ve been talking about international relations. We have the worst relationship with the United States that we’ve had in a long time. That’s what we need to fix as well.

Two things jump out from this brief exchange.

First, Thomas Mulcair seemed quite prepared to call Mr. Harper on his “Israel right or wrong” stance. In saying he wants a “safe state for Palestinans and a safe state for Israelis”, Mulcair is indicating that he is concerned about the human rights of everyone in the region… not just Israelis. This will not gain him any support from the Israel lobby, but he seems to be prepared to face down any attempt to claim that he is “anti-Semitic”. He is continuing to signal that he wants to cautiously demarcate himself from Mr. Harper on the issue of human rights for Palestinians.

Second, it seems clear that Trudeau WANTS TO AVOID criticizing Harper on this issue. Trudeau appeared to paper over any differences that might exist between him and Mr. Harper by claiming “all parties are in agreement on this.” He then attempted to change the subject to the issue of our relations with the USA. One can only speculate whether he did this because he really does agree with Harper that Israel’s security is more important than any other considerations, or whether its because in a tight race, he is unwilling to risk the wrath of the Israel lobby.

The campaign has barely begun, and positions may evolve. But differences are emerging.

NOTE: Unfortunately, Elizabeth May did not get an opportunity to comment on this issue in the debate.


  1. Peter,
    You are far too kind to Mulcair. His statement, “We want a safe state for Palestinians, and a safe state for Israelis. That’s a balanced approach.” is a statement in favour of ethnic cleansing. It could be used in support of those Israelis who think that Arab Citizens of Egypt and Arab Residents of East Jerusalem should be sent to the West Bank. No matter how many states there are in this area they must both be safe for both Palestinians and Jews. “Two states for two people” is a completely pro-Israel position. Israel’s representatives use that phrase all the time. Mulcair’s position is far from fair and far from balanced.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful critique, David,

      I do not support Mulcair’s position.

      You are right that the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was done through an act of “ethnic cleansing”. The idea of extending that by creating 2 ethnic/religiously based states (one Palestinian and the other Jewish) in which discrimination based on ethnicity/religion would be “acceptable” should be repulsive to all democratic Canadians. And if that were to be done through even more ethnic cleansing, well, that would be worse yet.

      I totally agree with your statement that “no matter how many states there are in this area, they must be safe for both Palestinians and Jews”.

      However, I think it is worth noting that Mulcair is staking out a position that is different from Harper (and Trudeau). Mulcair is taking a “liberal zionist” position, in opposition to Harper’s right wing Zionist position. By claiming there are “no differences”, Trudeau is effectively following Harper.

      In the end, this is all about “positioning” for the election. Mulcair, who wants to be prime minister, is calculating that a significant number of Canadians are fed up with Harper’s unilateral position. I hope he is right.

  2. Peter,
    I do not see evidence that Mulcair’s position is a change from Harper’s. Harper seems impelled so say exactly what Israel says. Mulcair’s position is not clearly different from Israel’s position. Perhaps he would be different; I hope so but I see no evidence for it in his debate statements.

  3. Trudeau’s answer was that all three parties are in agreement that supporting Israel is a priority but without ongoing good relations for Canada within the UN, we have no say in the matter. Our position in the world as an honest broker of resolutions has been eroded to a near zero by Harper and his blind support of whatever Israeli leaders do. Palestine must be created. Safety for Israel must be aided, and the peril of existence for Israel in a sea of Islam must be recognized.

    1. David,

      Israel is, by far, the strongest power in the area and quite safe in a “sea of Islam”. In contrast, Palestine is helpless and subject to quite arbitrary force from a power that does not recognize its right to defend its people. Its sympathizers are generally afraid to act because they know how strong the Israeli military is. It is the Palestinians whose existence is in peril.

      While the Israelis occasionally mouth lip service for “two states for two people” they always add conditions that make it clear that the Palestinian state cannot have any of the the properties that we normally associate with “state”. Their idea of a Palestinian state is one that has no power of self-defense and cannot control its borders.

      I am looking for a candidate who believes that safety for all people in the area, whatever their ethnicity and wherever they live, is vital. I am looking for a candidate who does not have the misconception that support for Israeli’s ethnic and religious discrimination is the best way to help Israel. I did not see such a candidate on the podium.

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