Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion stood up in the Commons on Thursday to declare the Liberal government would support a Conservative motion on Israel even though it considers a large swath of it wrong-headed.
With that pretzel logic, Mr. Dion addressed pressures the Liberals feel from within the Jewish community, who are watching warily to see if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will pull back from Stephen Harper's staunch pro-Israel stand.
It is not a schism: Major groups such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs have not been criticizing the Liberals. They have largely expressed satisfaction, and noted official policy on Israel, and votes at the UN, have not changed. But there have been grumbles from within the community about a Trudeau appointment or a government statement – and things such as the Liberal plan to fund UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, could raise tensions.
So when Mr. Dion responded to the Conservative motion on Thursday, stressing staunch support for Israel was the priority.
The Conservative motion followed a well-worn tactic: It calls for something the government wants to support, mixed with something they will be loathe to accept.
In this case, it called upon the government to reject the boycott, divest and sanctions movement aimed at Israel – which the Liberals wanted to support.
Mr. Dion did just that. He argued the BDS movement – which promotes those economic tactics to press Israel to withdraw settlements, or support a Palestinian right-of-return, among other things – singles out Israel for blame, exacerbates tensions, and harms both Palestinians and Israelis by hurting jobs.
But the Conservative motion also called upon the government to "condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement." Mr. Dion declared that a bad idea.
Some of the people who support the BDS movement have anti-Semitic motives, but some are "mistaken in good faith," he said. "We won't convince those people of their error by smacking them on the head and hitting them with condemnations all over the place."
He accused the Conservatives of playing wedge politics. Yet, he said the Liberals will vote for their motion.
The Commons debate was not really over the BDS movement. No party supports it. The NDP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May opposed the motion as an affront to free speech. "It makes me think of George Orwell," the NDP's Hélène Laverdière said.
Mr. Dion seemed to agree. But there's little doubt that the Liberals feel they must make support for Israel clear. There have been ripples of tension.
Mr. Trudeau's appointment of Mississauga Centre MP Omar Alghabra, a former head of the Canadian Arab Federation, as parliamentary secretary to Mr. Dion drew complaints. Mr. Alghabra has long been dogged by accusations he is an extremist, even though his positions on Israel-Palestinian issues are mainstream. CIJA chief executive Shimon Fogel publicly played down concerns.
On Jan. 27, social media erupted when the government issued a Holocaust-remembrance statement that did not mention Jews. It referred to victims of Nazi atrocities, but not Jews specifically, and was later amended – but that instant reaction showed a level of wariness.
Those things might be blips. But Mr. Dion showed on Thursday that the Liberals are stickhandling the relationship. One key issue will be funding for UNRWA, an agency Mr. Harper cut off.
The Globe and Mail reported this month that the Liberals are considering providing $15-million to UNRWA, which oversees aid to Palestinian refugees.
Many of Canada's allies give money to UNRWA – the United States provides $400-million (U.S). But groups such as B'Nai Brith accuse the agency of being anti-Israel and paying employees who support Hamas or express anti-Israel vitriol. They and CIJA argue that Canada should send its aid to Palestinians directly, not UNWRA.
Will the Liberals back off on funding UNRWA? Not likely – they view it as part of returning to an honest-broker approach to the Mideast. But they may choose to provide money for specific, narrowly defined aid needs, and not core funding for the organization itself.