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How comforting it must be in these difficult times to have complete moral certainty about the war in Gaza. Conservatives are unwavering in their defence of Israel. New Democrats emphasize the plight and the rights of Palestinians. The Liberals, like most of the rest of us, struggle.

So you might have had some sympathy for the government when it promised but failed to release a statement last Wednesday declaring its response to South Africa’s explosive claim before the International Court of Justice that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza.

That understanding might even have extended to Thursday, when word arrived that the statement would come later in the day, but nothing appeared.

Friday was crunch time. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be speaking to reporters, and he was bound to be asked about South Africa’s accusation. He was ready.

While Canada supports the work of the court, he said, that “does not mean that we support the premise of the case brought forward by South Africa.” In other words, Canada had no position, one way or another. A statement issued later by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said much the same non-thing: “We will follow the proceedings of South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice very closely.”

It is perfectly understandable to question the nature and level of violence Israel is employing in Gaza, while condemning the atrocities of Hamas. The Liberals have said both things, repeatedly. But on the question of whether Israel is committing genocide, the government’s position is: No comment.

Changing demographics and changing attitudes lie behind this timidity. In the years before Mr. Trudeau came to power, Liberals unambiguously supported Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks and attacks by its neighbours.

But the Liberal Party since the days of Clifford Sifton in the 1890s has counted on immigrant voters for support. And between 2001 and 2021, the Muslim share of Canada’s population grew to 5 per cent from 2 per cent, even as the Jewish share of the population decreased slightly, to just below 1 per cent.

Mr. Trudeau’s promise during the 2015 election campaign to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada helped him win that election. Immigrant voters, many of them Muslim, in suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and Vancouver, helped the Liberals squeak through in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Now in the wake of the Hamas atrocities on Oct. 7 and the severity of Israel’s response in Gaza, the Liberal caucus is divided.

Both Montreal MP Anthony Housefather and Toronto MP Marco Mendicino have urged the Prime Minister to join with the United States in rejecting South Africa’s claim before the International Court of Justice.

But others, including Toronto MP Salma Zahid, support South Africa’s claim. The balance within the Liberal caucus has probably tipped in favour of support for Palestinians over Israelis.

So it’s hardly surprising that Liberal foreign policy in the Middle East has morphed from ready-aye-ready support for Israel to a confused mixing of messages. The Liberals are trying to court both Jewish and Muslim voters at the same time, while papering over caucus divisions.

(If you think Canadian foreign policy should reflect something other than partisan domestic considerations, you would be both right and naive.)

The irony of this Liberal straddling between Jewish and Muslim communities is that it could cost the party votes on both sides.

Conservatives believe they can win over Muslim voters by focusing on pocketbook issues. But the party has always stood resolutely with Israel. Stephen Harper, when he was prime minister, was such a stalwart ally that he was invited to address the Knesset. Pierre Poilievre has supported Israel’s actions throughout its attack on Gaza.

As for South Africa’s claim before the international court, “this is not about genocide,” Mr. Poilievre told reporters Friday. “It is about shamelessly and dishonestly attacking the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in contrast, has been urging Mr. Trudeau to support a ceasefire in Gaza – which would be a clear win for Hamas – since October.

The Liberals find themselves caught between an Israel/Conservative rock and a NDP/Palestinian hard place. And they don’t seem to have a solution, other than to placate both sides, which is no solution at all.

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