Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s impressive victory has many in the pro-Israel community worrying. Former prime minister Stephen Harper was such an enthusiastic friend that the concerns are logical. If we’re often told in government to follow a strategy of “better the devil you know” than the unknown, it is really hard to let go of an angel. But Trudeau spent the campaign insisting on his warm support for the Jewish state and criticizing Harper for turning Israel into a “political football.” Now is the time both to take Trudeau at his word and make the case why candidate Trudeau was correct when he praised Israel’s and Canada’s “enduring bond of friend, rooted in our shared commitment to peace and democracy,” when he called Hamas a “terrorist organization,” with no dilly-dallying during the Gaza conflict, and when he has denounced the boycott movement so eloquently.
The first step, is reassuring Trudeau that support for Israel remains a popular, core grassroots all-Canadian, all-party commitment. In the battle over deciphering the election returns, it’s essential to stress that this campaign focused on domestic issues mostly and that Harper lost because of Harper fatigue and Trudeaumania, not because of Harper’s support for Israel. Israel’s enemies will be quick to say: Harper supported Israel and Harper lost, therefore, Harper lost because of his support for Israel. They followed a similar logic when Canada did not win the seat on the United Nations Security Council, and to this day, despite impressive proof that the issue had more to do with UN politics than anything else, many point to Canada not being on the Security Council as the “cost” of supporting Israel.
Trudeau was right throughout the election to insist that the Liberal party has a proud history of supporting Israel. It’s one of those happy corners in the political word where doing right makes for good politics. While I was grateful to Harper and his team for their ardent support for Israel, I agree with Trudeau that support for Israel should be seen as a common value uniting all Canadian parties and not a wedge issue.
Now, of course, comes the hard part: translating the poetry of the campaign into the prose of governance, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo once put it. Already, Trudeau’s new foreign affairs minister, Stephane Dion, triggered some concerns with his call for Canada to return to its historic role as an “honest broker.” Trudeau must make it clear that being an “honest broker” is not a fig leaf for going back to the bad old amoral days of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, when Canada feared taking clear moral stands against terrorism and dictatorship at the UN and elsewhere. An “honest broker” that is open to all, but can draw the lines morally between democracies and dictatorships, between terrorists and victims, is essential in today’s topsy-turvy world.
Trudeau could benefit from a tutorial with another charismatic liberal leader, former U.S. president Bill Clinton. As I show in my new book The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, Clinton evolved on foreign policy. He started by dodging conflict and muting his moral voice. But his passivity failed to stop the Rwanda genocide. Eventually he realized that he had to stand strong morally – and sometimes even violently – because the world abhors a vacuum. And, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton understood two important lessons that candidate Trudeau said he learned. First, Israel needs to feel loved, secure, supported, especially by leading democracies. And second, when Palestinians turn to terror, excusing them is not being an honest broker, but an enabler. When necessary, Clinton confronted the Palestinians – and gave Israel $100 million in funds to fight terror.
In today’s world, Canada cannot retreat in the fight against terror – and I trust Trudeau to stick to his word.