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Canadian politicians put up a united front on Israel — but bigger challenges lie ahead

The unanimity expressed by Canadian political leaders in response to Hamas's attack on Israeli citizens was important — even if differences inevitably were going to emerge. Partisanship is never set aside for long. And war is neither easy nor simple.

While Canada isn't at the centre of events, that doesn't make us helpless

A man stands in front of a burning car.

On Monday evening, the prime minister and the leader of the Official Opposition shared the stage at a Jewish community centre in Ottawa, where they delivered an unequivocal condemnation of the atrocities committed by Hamas gunmen against men, women and children in southern Israel last weekend.

By the time they spoke, Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre also had both condemned the pro-Hamas sentiment that reportedly was being expressed at some protests and rallies across the country.

That unanimity sent an important signal, even if differences inevitably were going to emerge. Partisanship is never set aside for long. And war is neither easy nor simple.

There will be difficult questions now for Canadian politicians about what is unfolding in the Middle East — and bigger questions about what Canada can or should do about it.

WATCH: Trudeau, Poilievre form united front on Israel-Hamas war:

At Issue | Trudeau and Poilievre’s united front on Israel

1 day ago

Duration 23:15

Featured VideoWith the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, how important is it for Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre to maintain a united front? What’s the state of the NDP and its deal with the Liberals? Plus, what an RCMP investigation into the plan to develop Ontario’s Greenbelt could mean for Doug Ford and his government.

The domestic political controversies linked to this new war have so far been minor, and largely contrived.

First, on Monday, the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States issued a joint statement on the Hamas attacks — which was construed by some observers as a sign of Canada's irrelevance on the international stage. Critics claimed the Trudeau government had been "excluded" from a statement issued by some of its allies.

That criticism seemed to be oblivious of the fact that those five nations — the "Quint" — have a pre-existing diplomatic relationship and have been issuing joint statements for years. There was no such self-flagellation, for instance, when the same group of five issued a statement on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories just eight months ago — or when the group produced a similar statement in 2020. Commentators lost no sleep over Canada's absence from Quint statements on Kosovo, Syria or Ukraine.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Conservatives alleged the Liberal government wasn't moving fast enough to evacuate Canadians from Israel. But the first Canadian aircraft landed in Israel less than 48 hours later, effectively ending the controversy before it could really begin.

Much thornier questions are now presenting themselves.

The political and practical challenges of war

As the week progressed, questions quickly turned to the welfare of citizens in Gaza — a concern that will become much more pressing if, as expected, Israel launches a ground invasion of the densely packed Gaza Strip.

"Our heart breaks for every lost innocent life, Palestinian and Israeli," Poilievre said on Wednesday in response to a reporter's question about Israel's decision to cut off supplies to the Gaza Strip. "Let's remember that every loss of life in this conflict is the direct consequence of Hamas's conduct."

Asked by a reporter about Israel's "siege" of Gaza on Thursday, Trudeau said "Israel has the right to defend itself in accordance with international law." He added that Canada will "continue to look for ways to support civilians — both Palestinian and Israelis — and ensure that as many civilians as possible are kept safe during this terrible conflict that is the responsibility and the fault of the terrorist organization known as Hamas."

An aerial view of refugees on flatbed trucks.

The Liberal government has called on all sides to respect international humanitarian law. But if the civilian death toll continues to climb, there will be new questions for leaders around the world — the NDP has already called for "an end to the siege and bombardment of Gaza."

Three Canadians are known to have died in Israel so far, and four more are considered unaccounted for. The government has not said whether any Canadians are being held hostage by Hamas.

Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister, has argued Canada should play a central role in helping to free those held captive by building on this country's efforts to win support for an international declaration against arbitrary detention.

Then there's the question of how to help Canadians who reside in Gaza; 150 people there have so far contacted the Canadian government seeking assistance. While the blockade of the Gaza Strip makes it very hard to assist those Canadians, federal officials disclosed on Friday that there may be a window of opportunity on Saturday afternoon to get them into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing.

During Trudeau's appearance on Thursday, he announced that the federal government is committing an additional $10 million to humanitarian assistance in the region; the government described it as "initial funding" in response to the crisis.

Getting aid into Gaza immediately may require the creation of a humanitarian corridor. But this situation calls for the deployment of immense resources — both to relieve suffering in the short-term and to rebuild Gaza in the long-term.

"There's a clear role on humanitarian assistance for Canada," Arif Lalani, a former Canadian ambassador to Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Arab Emirates, said in an interview this week. "We should be at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance."

Nations will be judged, he said, by the speed and extent of that assistance.

Can this crisis lead to peace?

As difficult as it might be to imagine right now, the current crisis also demonstrates the desperate need for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Remember that out of these crises is when we get peace processes," Lalani said.

"Even in all of the trauma that we are seeing now, and we will see in the future, in the short term, it's credible to think about what a revived Palestinian track would look like. And Canadians can be doing some of that thinking."

The New Democrats suggested as much in their initial response to last week's attacks. The challenge, Lalani said, is that Canadian governments "have not really engaged meaningfully in the region for about a decade."

Two people embrace at night in front of a fountain.

That might make it harder for Canada to play a meaningful role now. But Canada was involved in a previous iteration of the peace process; in the 1990s, Canada chaired a refugee working group that came out of discussions at the Madrid Conference.

Canadian officials do seem to be making some real efforts now. In addition to speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trudeau has had calls with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority since the current crisis began. Before flying to Israel and Jordan, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly spoke with her counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

That engagement needs to be maintained, Lalani said.

When Joly appeared before reporters on Wednesday, she repeated her warning that "this will get worse before it gets better." Sadly, that may be true. But that means all leaders have an obligation now to speak and act with an eye to ensuring that, someday, things are better.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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