Justin Trudeau struggles to walk a very fine line on the Israel-Hamas war
PM caught between asserting Israel's right to self-defence and reflecting Canadians' grief and fear
The war between Israel and Hamas creates two challenges for Justin Trudeau, as it would for any Canadian prime minister.
First, he must try to take and hold a principled position on a dire conflict. Second, he must try to hold together a country whose citizens are understandably agonized by the death and destruction.
The strain of both those tasks only becomes more apparent with each passing day. Within 24 hours of Trudeau's remarks on the conflict Tuesday, Trudeau was heckled by pro-Palestinian protesters inside a Vancouver restaurant for what he didn't say — and scolded online by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what he did say.
Trudeau's five-minute statement on Tuesday — delivered in the middle of an announcement of federal support for a new battery facility in British Columbia — began with comments and arguments he has offered before. The "human tragedy" unfolding in the Gaza Strip is "heart wrenching," he said, and the "price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians."
"Even wars have rules," he added. "All innocent life is equal in worth — Israeli and Palestinian."
He later condemned Hamas's use of human shields and called for the release of all hostages. He cited Hamas's threat to launch repeated attacks like the one it carried out on Oct. 7.
He called again for a "humanitarian pause" and unfettered access to humanitarian aid. He expressed a hope that a sustained pause would create the conditions for peace.
He denounced recent incidents of antisemitic violence in Montreal and elsewhere. He called on Canadians to "remember who we are" and to be there for each other.
But what seems to have drawn the ire of Netanyahu and others is a portion of Trudeau's remarks that began with a call for Israel to exercise "maximum restraint."
"Because the world is watching," the prime minister said. "On TV, on social media, we're hearing the testimonies of doctors, family members, survivors, kids who've lost their parents. The world is witnessing this. The killing of women and children, of babies. This has to stop."
Though it's hard to argue with anyone's desire for an end to violence, Trudeau did not say how the violence should stop or under what terms. Some interpreted his comments as an attempt to blame Israel for the war. But Trudeau also could argue that he was merely saying things that are objectively true. Women and children are being killed. The world is watching.
Trudeau not alone in worrying about civilian deaths
Some of Trudeau's words resembled comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron four days earlier in an interview with the BBC. But Macron, who has called for a ceasefire, went further.
"It's impossible to explain, 'We want to fight against terrorism by killing innocent people,'" the French leader said.
Netanyahu was also unhappy with Macron's comments. The next day, in conversations with other Israeli officials, Macron apparently "reiterated" Israel's right to defend itself.
On Wednesday, it was Trudeau's turn to talk with Benny Gantz, the Netanyahu rival and critic who joined Israel's war cabinet after last month's attack. According to the official account, Trudeau similarly "reaffirmed" Israel's right to self-defence.
Macron and Trudeau's conversations with Gantz may have been about damage control. They also may have also gotten a point across — an important one.
Israel's allies might accept its right to defend itself and hold Hamas responsible for inciting this war and putting civilians in harm's way. But how much death is acceptable, tolerable or justified, even in self-defence? That is the question that weighs on Israel and every country that calls it a friend.
This isn't merely a moral question — it's also a strategic one. Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group argued this week that Israel's response to Oct. 7 has played into Hamas's hands.
Opinion polling suggests there is significant support in Canada for some kind of ceasefire — either permanent or temporary. So Trudeau could argue his words are broadly in line with public sentiment. It's at least as notable that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was not among those condemning the prime minister's comments this week.
But this is not an issue that can be resolved with a simple poll.
'My job ... is to help bring Canadians back together'
When Trudeau was pressed on Tuesday to explain why he hasn't called for a ceasefire, he pivoted and focused on the situation in Canada.
The question to ask, he said, isn't whether "this magic solution or that magic solution said by a Canadian prime minister [is] suddenly going to bring peace to the Middle East overnight."
Rather, he said, "this is about us remembering that when a kid feels scared to go to school in the morning because of their religion, because of their ethnicity," it's the responsibility of all Canadians to speak up.
"My biggest concern is how we bring Canadians together," Trudeau said.
That effort starts, he said, "with listening to each other."
Trudeau has now offered extended comments on this theme several times over the past week and a half. The ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism have animated some of Trudeau's most forceful statements — and his calls now to reject prejudice and overcome differences seem like an extension of that.
Speaking to reporters at the APEC summit in San Francisco on Friday, Trudeau said his "job, as Canadian prime minister, is to help bring Canadians back together.
"To understand that, if Canadians can't figure out how to get along and remember to be compassionate and empathetic towards each other, then where in the world is there a solution for the conflict and the tensions in the Middle East going to come [from]?"
Talk of bringing Canadians together can seem simplistic, trite or pro forma. But 44 years ago, former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield was dispatched to the Middle East on behalf of Joe Clark; among the recommendations he came back with was a simple call for more "dialogue."
"In Canada a dialogue between Jewish and Arab groups would be highly desirable," Stanfield wrote.
In addition to promoting public understanding, he said, dialogue might create a "sounder and healthier foundation" for Canadian foreign policy. Stanfield conceded it would require "patience and willingness to persist" through possible "misunderstandings," but "such a dialogue seems to me nevertheless to be an important contribution that these groups of Canadians can make to the Middle East and Canada."
Canada is not completely bereft of dialogue at the moment — consider the joint letter recently authored by Muslim and Jewish law students at the University of Ottawa.
But if it's fair to ask the government about its position on the war — and if it's fair to expect that leaders condemn bigotry and protect Canadians from harm — it's also fair to ask what can be done to promote the sort of dialogue and compassion both the world and Canada need more than ever now.