Harper's stand giving Liberals trouble with Jews

Supporters of Israel are having second thoughts about backing Liberals

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The Gazette, Friday, August 4, 2006

It isn't a vote of the Commons foreign affairs committee, calling for an immediate ceasefire between the Israelis and Hezbollah, that's going to end hostilities in the Middle East.

Even Canadians, with our preposterous sense of our role as peacekeepers and honest brokers, aren't that delusional.

But make no mistake, the committee vote was important in terms of domestic politics. The Liberals joined with the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP in calling for an immediate ceasefire, making a 7-4 majority over the Conservatives.

The government wanted a resolution calling for a "sustainable" ceasefire, meaning Hezbollah would stop firing rockets into northern Israel from rooftops in southern Lebanon.

Appearing at the committee, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay didn't mince words, calling Hezbollah "a cancer." MacKay was holding firmly to the prime minister's avowed support of Israel's right to defend itself. As MacKay said of Hezbollah: "They started it."

MacKay wasn't just serving as Stephen Harper's proxy. He was putting the cat among the pigeons.

The Liberals are terribly divided about this issue. The Jewish community in this country is only one per cent of the population, but it is a core Liberal constituency. The Liberals are also the party of multiculturalism, and Muslim and Lebanese Canadians obviously don't approve of Harper's support of Israel.

Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham has tried to steer a middle course, reminding the government of Canada's honest-broker role in the region.

But this isn't Suez, and it's not 1956. The two sides aren't standing down, and it's not a war by Geneva rules. One side uses civilians as shields, the other is blamed for resulting civilian casualties. The tragic collateral damage includes hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in southern Lebanon.

But in the Canadian Jewish community, the main issue is solidarity with Israel. While the Liberals are holding to a neutral line, the Conservatives are unwavering in their support of the Israelis.

There is no more loyal bloc of Liberal voters, especially in Montreal and Toronto, than the Jewish community. The community has also been a generous financial supporter of the Liberals.

Those voter affiliations, and financial considerations, are now being revisited in light of Harper's unequivocal support of Israel.

It remains very much to be seen how this will translate into votes and dollars. Another Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was a staunch supporter of Israel, and it never did him any good at the polls. But he wasn't in office in a time of war in the Middle East, with terrorist rockets aimed at Israeli cities. Harper's position might have divided the country, but it doesn't divide the Jewish community.

That's a problem for the Liberals, and they know it. They're hearing not just from lobbies like the Canada Israel Committee, they're hearing it from the Cavendish Mall.

There are probably no more than two dozen ridings in the country where the Jewish vote constitutes a margin of victory in elections.

Harper hasn't taken this position for the votes, and he isn't doing it as a lapdog to George W. Bush. In the early days of his government, Canada was the first Western country to cut off aid to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

It's far from clear that Harper will reap any electoral dividends from this. But there is a clear divide between his clarity and the Liberals' ambiguity.

And the Jewish community is clearly torn between voting habits and solidarity with Israel. This is now something to watch in the next campaign.

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