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Ottawa MP Paul Dewar outlines the NDP's plan to strengthen whistleblower protection at a Parliament Hill news conference on May 12, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There is a surprising confluence between the NDP and Conservatives on foreign policy, unless you believe, as Paul Dewar does, that tone and emphasis matter more than substance.

The Ottawa MP, whom NDP Leader Jack Layton reappointed as foreign affairs critic Thursday when he unveiled his shadow cabinet, acknowledges that both the NDP and the Conservatives support a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side in peace.

But language is everything, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unqualified support for Israel baffles and frustrates Mr. Dewar.

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"We actually support Obama's initiative," he said in an interview, referring to the U.S. President's controversial declaration last week that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the prewar 1967 border.

"But the government has immediately rejected that initiative," Mr. Dewar observed. "They're tone deaf on this."

Mr. Harper may be alone among G8 leaders in refusing to embrace the American demand that Israel water its wine in seeking a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

Rather than use their majority government to modulate their views on the Middle East, Mr. Dewar maintains, the Conservatives have decided "to keep it simple. They support whatever the government of Israel states," ignoring international opprobrium but gratifying core conservative and Jewish voters.

The New Democrats once had a reputation for being a party of reflexively anti-American pacifists, and with good reason, given that they were committed to pulling Canada out of NATO while opposing free trade and supporting asylum for American war resisters.

But the NDP is supposed to be the government-in-waiting, and Mr. Layton has steadily moderated party policy in his seven years as leader, to the point where it is getting hard to distinguish the NDP's foreign and defence policy from the Conservatives'.

Early in his leadership, Mr. Layton affirmed that Canada under an NPD government would remain in NATO. The divergence on Afghanistan, where the NDP has called for a complete troop withdrawal, is now minimal, as the mission there shifts from combat to training.

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The NDP has ridiculed the Harper government's decision to purchase a fleet of F-35 fighter aircraft, but the party is only committed to reviewing that purchase as part of a defence white paper.

The New Democrats support a robust Canadian military funded at current levels, with new ships and equipment and a mandate focused on "peacemaking, peace-building and peacekeeping."

Mr. Dewar acknowledges that any differences between the NDP and the Conservatives are based "on emphasis, and I would say on direction," rather than on substance.

One area where the two parties are almost certain to clash is on the talks under way with the United States over closer security and economic ties. But even here, Mr. Dewar refuses to come out foursquare in opposition.

"The stereotypical answer would be we're a hundred per cent against it and everything's at stake," he joked. But he said the NDP could support greater co-operation between the two countries if it did not come at the expense of safety standards or jobs.

Perhaps, but don't expect the NDP to vote in favour of increased integration with the United States. That would be a convergence too far.

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