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Support for Israel a Non-Issue in Conservative Leadership Race

Willem Hart

As the Conservative Party of Canada 2017 Leadership race enters its final months, I continue to be asked the same question by friends and colleagues within the party: which candidate is the best for Israel?

Even before the race began, and up until now, I have confidently answered that the topic of Israel has been approached by all CPC leadership candidates with uniform levels of support, and that members should focus on other areas of policy that interest them.

One could even argue that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staunch and unequivocal allegiance to Israel has now become a staple of the Conservative party. While Harper’s presence still looms large in areas such as fiscal responsibility and foreign affairs policy, the Conservative approach to Israel possesses a resounding permanence thanks to the historic steadfast support of its previous leader. Israel did come up a few times by candidates vying to replace Harper – but only in a way that mirrors his approach.

Of the top seven candidates – those who have the profile, financial backing and momentum in opinion polling that indicates some likelihood of winning this race – Kevin O’Leary, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Andrew Scheer, Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt and Erin O’Toole have each expressed their support of Israel, albeit in different ways.

The topic of Canada’s relationship with Israel was first thrust into the dialogue of the CPC 2017 leadership race in reaction to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which squarely targeted Israel’s settlement expansion program. The loaded language of this non-binding resolution has been discussed at great lengths, but the circumstances under which the resolution passed was the particular cause for upheaval. While many resolutions have passed, almost comically, at UN General Assembly sessions, Resolution 2334 was passed by the UN Security Council after the outgoing Obama administration broke a decades-old precedent and abstained, rather than voted against, the resolution sanctioning Israel.

While some were quick to condemn Obama’s last “shameful” move at the UN, arguably his parting shot to Netanyahu after a precarious eight-year relationship, contenders to replace Harper – who once told members of Israel’s Knesset that Canada would stand with Israel “through fire and water” – chimed in to support Israel at this tumultuous juncture.

The two women in the race, MPs Leitch (Simcoe-Grey) and Raitt (Milton), were quick to issue statements condemning the spectacle, and offered their own respective vision for Canadian-Israeli relations should they take the Prime Minister’s office. Leitch promised to follow then President-Elect Donald Trump’s lead in planning to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Raitt echoed her condemnation of the UN resolution, but also chided Prime Minister Trudeau for his conspicuous silence on the matter.

Foreign affairs and defence is not as prominent on the leadership campaign of MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills) as it is to others, perhaps due to the campaign’s emphasis on “democratic” and “environmental opportunity.” Something of an iconoclast within the Conservative ranks, the main distinguishing features of the Chong campaign have been a plan to decentralize the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as commit to a plan to combat climate change, pledging a revenue-neutral tax on carbon emissions.

While comments online regarding his stance on Israel are sparse, I attended an event at the University of Toronto featuring Mr. Chong, and he was asked by a friend (who is not Jewish) about his stance on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. His answer was that of emphatic rejection and disgust, and I was satisfied that his support for Israel is in line with the previous leader with whom he was known to clash.

With 22 MPs supporting him, Erin O’Toole (Durham) is just two endorsements behind Scheer, but his supporting views on Israel are part his greater plan of “restoring Canada’s place in the world (page doesn’t exist). To O’Toole, supporting Israel means supporting democracy, and this entails Canadian exchange and cooperation with the IDF, as well as ending Canadian funding to UNRWA.This is in contrast to the candidacy of MP Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle), who is viewed by some as an “establishment” candidate and is seen as being similar to Harper since he’s also from Western Canada, espouses nominally socially conservative viewpoints, and boasts the most endorsements from his federal parliamentary colleagues. His view on Israel is supportive (page doesn’t exist), ultimately tying it into his opposition to the growing influence of Iran in the region.

Maxime Bernier’s libertarian leanings seem to dispose him to an antagonistic view of the UN, a “big government” style organization that the Liberals approach to does not, in his view, jive with the agenda of the “prosperity of Canadians.” His statement on the UN’s anti-Israel bias resolves him to a plan of not “pleas[ing] the foreign affairs establishment and the United Nations, a dysfunctional organization,” citing the absurd twenty resolutions passed condemning the Jewish State last year to the mere three against North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Lastly of the main contenders is businessman and political outsider Kevin O’Leary, who not only does not have a seat in the House of Commons, but also no experience in politics whatsoever. One might think that Harper’s legacy of pro-Israelism in the Tory Party would mean that O’Leary would possibly not follow in this tradition.

O’Leary recently spoke at an event organized by the Ryerson Campus Conservatives in Toronto, and was directly asked by Students Supporting Israel (SSI) President Rebecca Katzman about his views on Israel. In a video provided by incoming SSI President Tamar Lyons, O’Leary responded that he’s always supported peace and a two-state solution, and that the UN’s anti-Israel bias is an embarrassment. He also noted that he wants to see Canada trade more often with Israel because of its “amazing tech.” Curiously, though, he said that he sees “Jerusalem as the last stepping stone to peace.”

While some candidates want to make a departure from his particular brand of Toryism – some more subtle and some more radical – there has been no indication that any of the candidates will be altering the Conservative’s approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the one introduced during the nine years of Prime Minister Harper’s ardent support for the Jewish State against the genocidal armies surrounding her.

Harper brought Zionism into the Conservative mainstream. He inspired a generation of young Jewish Canadians to enter politics, and take an interest in the affairs of government. It is my expectation that any of his likely successors will continue in this tradition of sincere support for the only democracy in the Middle East.

Willem Hart is a volunteer with B’nai Brith Canada and is currently finishing up his undergraduate degree at York University. He’s been involved in Israel advocacy and education through Hasbara at York, and is also an alumni of the StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellowship.