Scheer's pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital answers a question few Canadians are asking
There's no urgency behind this issue. The timing seems random
At the federal NDP convention in Ottawa last month, one of the most vigorous debates surrounded the party's softened position on Israel. Veteran firebrands accused party leaders of betraying their pro-Palestinian ideals. It was a dramatic scene.
Yet it received relatively scant media coverage. Foreign policy observers were far more animated about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's fashion-conscious trip to India, and the questions it raised about how much influence Sikh separatists have on Liberal policy.
Israel once was a hot issue in Canadian politics. In 2002, the NDP dressed down its own foreign affairs critic after he went to Ramallah and accused Israel of "state terrorism." Under Conservative rule, Stephen Harper made support for Israel a defining centrepiece of his foreign policy. Even as recently as 2015, a shockingly bitter fight broke out within the Canadian Jewish community over the question of whether you could vote for Trudeau and still be a good Zionist.
Trudeau's foreign policy attention
All of this now feels like ancient history. Contrary to Conservative campaign messaging, Trudeau didn't sell out Israel on the world stage. In fact, our prime minister hasn't mentioned Israel much at all, in large part because his government's foreign policy attention is focused mostly on protecting NAFTA, and the Canadian economy, from President Donald Trump.
At the same time, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has fallen off the world's radar more generally, having become overshadowed by far deadlier Middle East conflicts. Syria continues to burn and bleed. Saudi Arabia's royal family is under missile threat from a Yemen-based arsenal thought to be supplied by Iran. Egyptian soldiers and Islamist terrorists are slaughtering one another in Sinai. Turkey's southern borderlands comprise a giant tinderbox that threatens to draw in forces from half a dozen different nations (including two NATO members, fighting on opposite sides). Israel, by comparison, is a bastion of stability.
This is why Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's abruptly delivered promise that a Tory government would recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital feels strange and wrong. Scheer's pledge, posted on the Conservative Party website, answers a question that few Canadians are asking.
- Scheer says Tories will recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital if elected
Trump made his own announcement in December, not only recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, but also ordering the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move came at a time when Trump desperately needed to rile up his base and distract Americans from the Russia investigation. But Scheer doesn't have that excuse. In Canada, there's no urgency behind this issue. The timing seems random.
Certainly, there are ways that Canada can help make the Middle East safer for both Jews and Palestinians. But with the peace process completely stalled, the most promising avenues involve practical initiatives aimed at grassroots capacity-building, not grand diplomatic gestures.
Earlier this month, I met with a group of doctors touring North America to raise money for Project Rozana, a charity that helps critically ill Palestinian children access treatment in Israeli hospitals. One of those physicians, Dr. Raphael Walden, takes an Israeli medical van on weekly trips into West Bank towns, where he's greeted warmly by local mayors and other Palestinian Authority officials.
His colleague, Palestinian pediatric oncologist Khadra Salami, described to me a caseload spanning Jerusalem hospitals on both sides of the security fence. The pair came to Canada not only as fundraisers, but also as representatives of a Jewish and Palestinian professional class that is quietly creating a thick web of ongoing collaborations among health care workers, activists and IT entrepreneurs, notwithstanding roadblocks and populist taboos.
These are the sort of practical projects that deserve Western support. At the level of international diplomacy, meanwhile, the goal should be to encourage a climate of hope and mutual respect, so that both sides feel vested in continued cooperation until new leadership makes a political solution possible. But Trump and Scheer are sending the opposite message: directing gratuitous slaps at a Palestinian society that already feels abandoned by the international community (including cynical Arab neighbours).
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Whether or not that comes to pass, the issue has no direct bearing on Canada. This isn't a question of Canada being an "honest broker" because no one asked us to broker anything. The only effect of Scheer's declaration is to encourage the idea that negotiation is pointless for the Palestinians, because the fix is already in.
In the years after 9/11, when the demonization of Israel was a growing obsession among European cartoonists and UN diplomats, our politicians had good reason to offer overt gestures of solidarity with Israel. The Durban conference and the Jenin-massacre blood-libel had stoked an atmosphere of febrile anti-Semitism in the Middle East and beyond.
Here in Canada, many voters (including many non-Jews) were hungering for principled leadership on the Middle Eastern file. And Harper capitalized on that hunger expertly. But that era ended a while ago, and the vast majority of Canadians have moved on to other issues.
Where Scheer's political credibility with Canadian voters is concerned, the most important message he can send is that he won't be taking his policy cues from Trump, who is one of the most massively unpopular American political figures in the history of modern Canadian polling. Unfortunately, with his monkey-see, monkey-do Jerusalem stunt, Scheer is making me wonder what other bad Trump ideas he'll be looking to borrow.
Jonathan Kay is a Toronto writer and a panelist on CBC's The National.