Trudeau's pro-Israel stance offside with Canadians -- and hampers bid for UN seat

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Aiming to outshine the U.S. on the world stage isn't exactly setting the bar high these days. Outshining Norway and Ireland, however, might present a challenge.

And these two small countries are the main competitors if Justin Trudeau is to realize his dream of nabbing a seat for Canada on the United Nations Security Council.

For all the focus on surviving his meeting with Donald Trump this week, the real prize for Trudeau lies at the UN as he seeks to position himself, particularly in Canadian eyes, as a peacekeeping-loving, refugee-embracing, women-buttressing internationalist, leading a Canada that is "back" engaging with the world.

That's why Trudeau has appointed an eight-person team in Ottawa and New York to work on drumming up enough international support to secure the prestigious UN seat (for two years, starting in 2021), following former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's humiliating failure to win one, breaking Canada's long record of winning a Security Council seat whenever we tried.

For Trudeau, cultivating the persona of a progressive internationalist -- especially as his progressive credentials have been tarnished lately on the domestic front -- is key if he wants to hold onto the large swath of Canadian voters who embraced him as the anti-Harper in the last election.

The problem is that, while Trudeau's warm reception of refugees and his return to peacekeeping have won him kudos at home and abroad, his staunch support for Israel at the UN -- a holdover from the Harper years -- has left Canada significantly offside with world opinion, including major Canadian allies (and influential UN players) Britain, France and Germany.

As Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador to the UN, told me: "Canada's strongly pro-Israel position on the Israel-Palestine issue puts it at odds with all the other members of the Security Council except the U.S.A. and with the great majority of members of the General Assembly. This will not help our bid for a seat."

Although the PM wants to restore Canada's reputation as an honest broker in the Middle East -- a reputation Harper had few qualms tossing to the wind -- Trudeau has continued Harper's blanket support for Israel in recent UN votes and in the process left Canada isolated from almost all other nations, huddling in a corner with the U.S. and U.S. dependencies, such as the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

Canada's position became particularly isolated in December when even the U.S. took the surprise move of abstaining on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building, allowing the resolution to pass the Security Council 14-0. Its passage may put Canada in violation of international law since our bilateral trade deal with Israel doesn't distinguish between products from Israel and the Occupied Territories, as that resolution calls for.

So why is Trudeau allowing Canada to be so offside with world opinion on the long-boiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Conventional wisdom has it that Canadian politicians take strong pro-Israel positions in order to please Canadian voters.

But the results of a just-released poll by EKOS Research Associates throw this conventional wisdom out the window. According to the poll, 46 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of the Israeli government, while only 28 per cent have a positive view. Among Liberal voters, the negative view rises to 55 per cent while the positive drops to 22 per cent.

Indeed, support for the Israeli government is largely confined to Conservative voters, 58 per cent of whom have a positive view, compared to an average of just 11 per cent among the other four parties.

It turns out Canadians are in line with the world on the issue. It's the Trudeau government that's wildly offside -- with global opinion, Canadians in general and potential Liberal voters in particular.

The Trudeau government probably knows this, and it explains why it has largely kept quiet on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even as it has voted in lockstep with Micronesia and Palau.

By keeping its staunchly pro-Israel stance low-key and out of the news, Trudeau is able to satisfy Canada's well-organized pro-Israel lobby, while not attracting the attention of the broader Canadian public. Keeping the Canadian public ignorant has been key.

Trudeau won mostly good reviews this week for his balancing act with Trump in Washington.

But winning the coveted UN seat -- and with it, the image of being the broad-minded internationalist he aspires to be seen as -- may prove trickier than figuring out what to do when faced with an outstretched orange hand attached to the free world's pre-eminent snake-oil salesman.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

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