Skip to main content

Liberal power couple Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz have publicly broken with the Liberal Party line on the Middle East crisis and are turning to Prime Minister Stephen Harper because of his support of Israel.

Mr. Schwartz, a confidante of former prime minister Paul Martin and one of Canada's most influential businessmen as the head of Onex Corp., is one of the eight signatories of an advertisement placed in a newspaper in Cornwall, Ont., where the Conservatives are holding caucus meetings.

The ad welcomes the caucus to Cornwall and expresses appreciation to Mr. Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Conservative MPs for "standing by" Israel. It also lauds other G8 leaders and Australian Prime Minister John Howard for their stands on the war.

Mr. Schwartz's wife, Ms. Reisman, says she is leaving the party to support the Conservatives under Stephen Harper.

Mr. Harper has expressed firm support for Israel during the Middle East war. It's not clear whether Mr. Schwartz is also leaving the Liberals for the Conservatives.

In an e-mail to friends, Ms. Reisman applauded film producer Robert Lantos's statement at a weekend rally that he would "hereby take off [his]life-long federal Liberal hat."

"I [am]right there alongside Robert. . . . after a lifetime of being a Liberal, I have made the switch," Ms. Reisman wrote. "Feels strange, but totally and unequivocally right."

A recipient of the e-mail confirmed that Ms. Reisman, who was the Liberal Party of Canada's policy chairwoman in the 1980s and who worked for Pierre Trudeau in his first election in 1965, had sent the e-mail to several friends, and that she has told others the same thing.

"She has told her friends in person and in e-mails that she is supporting the Conservatives under Stephen Harper this time," a close friend said yesterday. "She thinks that his position on the Lebanon issue is the right one."

The philanthropic business couple is reacting to Mr. Harper's early support for Israel's strong military response to the capture of its soldiers by Hezbollah forces crossing into Israel three weeks ago and the shelling of its northern territory.

On July 17, Mr. Schwartz observed that: "Earlier this year, Prime Minister Harper demonstrated great courage in expressing opposition to the new Hamas government -- a position quickly adopted by the international community. Today, the Prime Minister has again assumed a leadership role through his unequivocal support of Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism.''

Much of the ire of the prominent Liberals who are lauding Mr. Harper is directed at interim Liberal leader Bill Graham, who criticized Mr. Harper's strong support of Israel, saying it will harm Canada's credibility as an arbitrator in world crises.

In a piece for The Globe and Mail clarifying the party's position this week, Mr. Graham said Mr. Harper's government is risking Canada's ability to act as a peacekeeper and honest broker, and may be jeopardizing domestic harmony.

Several of the Liberal leadership candidates, including front-runner Michael Ignatieff, have also been critical of Mr. Harper's position, and have called for Canada to press efforts for a ceasefire.

Senator Jerry Grafstein said that Mr. Graham's stand has distorted the traditional Liberal position of supporting countries when they are attacked by a "clear-cut aggressor," because, in this instance, Hezbollah is the aggressor whose aims are to extinguish the democratic state of Israel.

This time, Liberals are calling for neutrality even though Hezbollah is the aggressor, he said, and a ceasefire without a robust military peacekeeping force will only allow Hezbollah to rearm in Lebanon.

"I'm confused by that, and a lot of Liberals are confused by that," Mr. Grafstein said.

Two Liberal leadership candidates, Joe Volpe and Scott Brison, have backed Israel, Mr. Grafstein said. "The rest of the candidates are all over the place."

But Mr. Grafstein said he doesn't agree with leaving the party over the issue, saying the best tack is to stay and convince people of his position.

"That's their decision. But for me, what I want to try to do, is to convince my colleagues to look at the facts."

The Liberal Party has traditionally enjoyed strong support in Canada's Jewish community, but now there are questions as to whether Mr. Harper's stand may win their backing. The movement of prominent lifetime Liberals like Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Reisman suggests that is a very real possibility.

Organizers for several Liberal leadership candidates have said Canadian Muslims have signed up in relatively large numbers -- and many are dismayed when a candidate takes a strong pro-Israel stand in the current war.

Mr. Volpe's former campaign manager, Scarborough MP Jim Karygiannis, left the campaign over a disagreement with Mr. Volpe's strong pro-Israel stand.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles