NATIONAL

On both sides now

On Israel, leadership hopefuls, like the polls, go two ways at once

COLIN CAMPBELL September 4 2006
NATIONAL

On both sides now

On Israel, leadership hopefuls, like the polls, go two ways at once

COLIN CAMPBELL September 4 2006

On both sides now

NATIONAL

On Israel, leadership hopefuls, like the polls, go two ways at once

COLIN CAMPBELL

On July 31, an opinion poll showed that the majority of Canadians opposed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hardline stand on the Middle East conflict. Harper had refused to call for a ceasefire, standing firmly behind Israel as it advanced into Lebanon. Two weeks later, on Aug. 14, just as the ceasefire took effect, another poll came out with an entirely different set of results. Canadians actually support Harper, it said.

The results underscored not only the vagaries of polling—two different pollsters with two different sets of questions and wildly different conclusions—but also what a political minefield the issue can be. If the public is divided, where do poll-reading politicians, especially the 10 vying to lead the Liberals, stand on the Middle East? An informal survey by Maclean’s found the candidates, much like the polls, on both sides, searching for footing on a very narrow middle ground.

All the Liberal candidates agree that Israel has a right to defend itself, that Hezbollah should remain illegal in Canada, and Iran and Syria were wrong to arm and support the group. Joe Volpe takes one of the stronger positions, saying that “Israel had the obligation to protect and defend its citizens.” Martha Hall Lindlay says, “We must oppose those, like Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, who seek the destruction of any people or state.” Such answers would have landed the candidates on Harper’s side based on conclusions drawn in the Aug. 14 poll, by COMPAS Inc.

But the candidates are quick to criticize Harper’s inflexibility. All say he was wrong not to call for a ceasefire, or at least make some diplomatic effort to minimize the conflict. (This hurts Canada’s position to play a meaningful role, says the Liberal party.) This would have placed candidates firmly on the majority side in the first poll, by Strategic Counsel, opposing Harper’s position of support for “Israeli actions.” “He failed to understand that it was possible to both support Israel’s

right to defend itself, which I do, while at the same time opposing the escalation,” says Gerard Kennedy. Bob Rae, one of the leading candidates, says, “Canada is not neutral about the outcome, but we must be more engaged in helping shape it. It must secure the future of every country in the region: Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.” The Liberal candidates also criticize Harper’s decision not to send a peacekeeping force to the region, or at least consider contributing to a multilateral force.

The other political parties are firmer in their opposition to Harper’s position. The NDP’s foreign affairs critic, Alexa McDonough, says Israel has a right to defend itself, but adds that Hezbollah is misunderstood—it is a political force in Lebanon, not just a military one. In Quebec, where polls show stronger opposition to Harper’s policy than in the rest of Canada, the Bloc Québécois has also been highly critical, calling for a more “balanced position.” Scott Brison stands out as the one candidate to say he agrees with Harper’s response. “The notion that Canada has a neutral position is false,” he says. But he adds that Harper failed in not searching out a role for Canada. “Anybody who understood the issue knew there wouldn’t be a ceasefire until there was a realistic plan to stabilize southern Lebanon.” Ken Dryden goes further than most in saying Harper’s motives are rooted in his support for U.S. President George W. Bush, calling Harper’s response a “mini-U.S., Mini-Me response.” Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal frontrunner, has been labelled more hawkish than most. He made headlines with a remark that he was not losing sleep over civilian deaths and was slow to make a statement. But Ignatieff has echoed the position of his colleagues, stating Harper’s position “has failed to stake out the positive role that Canada could play.”

Both Ignatieff and Kennedy note Harper’s response has caused divisions in Canada. It is “sowing discord among us,” says Ignatieff. On this, they are backed by the recent poll results. And this could spell trouble—if past Liberal success has been based on carving out the middle ground and bridging such divides, the party may have met its match with the highly divisive Middle East crisis. M