Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer

The Conservatives’ promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital if elected seems to embody the worst of partisan politics in Canada. The issue has no direct bearing on Canadians, but is sure to be leveraged for maximum symbolic value in the run up to next year’s federal elections.

While the Conservatives initially refused to follow Trump’s lead in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they changed their tune at the Manning Centre’s Networking Conference in early February. A few weeks later, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s office articulated the party’s new policy via a bold webpage. Scheer spokesperson Jake Enwright made the Conservatives’ electoral intents clear, stating, “If Canadians want a government who will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we want their support to recognize that.”

The problem is, such an approach will further undermine everything Canada and its diplomatic partners have striven to achieve in the Middle East over the past 70 years. When releasing historic Palestine from British colonial rule after World War II, the UN General Assembly had the wisdom to designate Jerusalem as an international city, to be administered by the United Nations.  While this intent was ignored by both the Israelis and Jordanians in 1948, it remains central to peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinians today.

In fact, the status of Jerusalem is considered one of several “final status” issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, to be resolved only as part of a final settlement between the parties. As UN Secretary‑General António Guterres would attest, recognition of Jerusalem as exclusively Israel’s capital is a “unilateral” step that dangerously jeopardizes attempts for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Modern Jerusalem is very different than the city that many Conservative supporters know only from the Bible. While the city has been home to Jews continuously since Biblical times, the city has changed hands repeatedly over the past two thousand years. The city was highly multi-ethnic in 1947 and remains so today. Jews worship at the Western Wall; Christians revere the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Al Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. There’s a reason the UN sought to make it an international city in 1947.

Canada was an architect of the partition of Palestine in 1947, and Canada continues to bear responsibility to ensure that the intents of that plan are fulfilled. The governance of Jerusalem, like the other final status issues — borders, settlements, security and the Palestinian refugees — is an integral part of a fair and peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A truly principled Canadian government would work to help establish a viable Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully next to its Israeli neighbour. 

Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Erin O’Toole has asserted, “You can support an ultimate two state solution while also recognizing that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel.” But the vast majority of Canada’s allies disagreed in a UN General Assembly vote decrying Trump’s move as “imperilling” efforts for Middle East peace.  

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives’ webpage on the matter contains none of O’Toole’s nuances, stating blithely, “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Sign if you agree.”   

Of course, the Trudeau government is hardly better than the Conservatives on Jerusalem. Canada chose to abstain from the UN vote condemning Trump on Jerusalem, and has maintained Harper’s distinctly pro-Israel stance since the 2015 election. 

But the fact of the matter is that Scheer’s Conservatives are looking to score domestic political points with their promise on Jerusalem. It’s a faraway city, and the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians — based on international law, and supported by generations of Canadian diplomats — will not be heard here in Canada. 

Citizens of the Middle East would be right to question why the status of Jerusalem should become an election issue in Canada. They would also be right to wonder why a Conservative government would be flippantly willing to further upset the balance of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over it. They might also question how Canadian politicians purport to have any authority to bestow “eternal and indivisible” Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. 

But for domestic political concerns, Scheer’s Conservatives are in a race to out-do the Liberals in being a “friend of Israel.” Taken to its logical conclusion, it’s a contest that will end only when Liberal and Conservative politicians have relinquished every principle of international law and diplomacy in a race to give Israel’s right-wing government everything it could possibly desire. 

Lost in all this cynical politics, unfortunately, is the peace and well-being of average Israelis and Palestinians.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Thomas Woodley

Thomas Woodley is president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a Canadian non-profit whose mission is to empower Canadians of all backgrounds to promote justice, development...