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Maverick NDP foreign affairs critic Svend Robinson was stripped of his responsibility for Middle East matters by party leader Alexa McDonough yesterday to quell anger over his backing Palestinians in recent weeks.

Mr. Robinson drew the wrath of his own caucus and high-profile New Democrats for moves widely interpreted as backing Palestinians in the current Middle East conflict. In early April he travelled to Israel to "demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people" and accused Israel of "state terrorism."

Ms. McDonough, who is taking over the role of Middle East critic, also backed away from comments she made April 9 equating Israeli military policy with terrorism. She told reporters she now regrets her words. "I think it is not helpful in this situation to talk in those terms."

The NDP Leader refused to criticize Mr. Robinson directly, but said she was taking action to repair a "very damaging, worrisome misperception" that the NDP is taking sides in the Middle East conflict.

"I've taken on this responsibility as leader at this time because of a regrettable public perception that the NDP has abandoned its long-standing balanced position, which supports the right of Israel to exist within secure borders and the right of Palestinians to a homeland," she told reporters.

Mr. Robinson, for his part, said he's been misunderstood and blamed the media for creating the impression he was biased and anti-Semitic. "It's important to underscore that one can be very critical of the policies of the Israeli government, the Sharon government, and not be in any way anti-Semitic."

He said he abhors suicide bombings as terrorism but also condemns "the appalling brutality and violence of the Israeli government in their military aggression in the occupied territories."

He said he won't be silenced on speaking out about the Middle East and lashed out at former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, who has called Mr. Robinson a "histrionic crank" and criticized him for failing to show solidarity with Jewish victims in the current crisis.

"Bob Rae's missive from the corporate boardrooms of Bay Street . . . had no influence whatsoever on my decision or Alexa's," he said.

Supporters of Israel said Ms. McDonough didn't go far enough and called on her to remove Mr. Robinson as foreign affairs critic.

"He has clearly allied himself with the Palestinians," said Joe Wilder, national chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee.

Canadian Jewish Congress president Keith Landy called shuffling the Middle East portfolio a "half measure" that fails to restore the NDP's credibility. "[Mr. Robinson's]distinct lack of impartiality disqualifies him from such a sensitive position in the NDP shadow cabinet," he said.

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