Canada’s Response to Israel’s Far-Right Government Is Disgraceful, but It’s Nothing New

Ottawa’s refusal to ruffle feathers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, the most far-right in Israel’s history, is par for the course. Canada remains a staunch ally of Israel’s apartheid state.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (R) attend a ceremony in Paris on November 11, 2018 (Francois Mori / various sources / AFP)

In December, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed the most far-right government in the country’s history. With openly racist supporters of terrorism now holding key ministerial positions in Israel’s apartheid state apparatus, even some pro-Israel groups in North America have expressed moderate disapproval.

Despite initially ignoring concerns about the racists in Netanyahu’s cabinet, the Biden administration is supposedly trying to “limit” their influence — though military ties between the two countries remain more entrenched than ever. In Canada, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has given no sign that it will take any steps against the Netanyahu government, even its most overtly extremist elements.

This fits a long pattern of Ottawa failing to speak up against Israel’s egregious abuses, and highlights Trudeau’s unwillingness to move on the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of condemning violations of Palestinian rights. On the contrary, the Liberal government is happy to tolerate Israel’s most dangerous escalations of violence, offering at best mealymouthed statements of concern in response to acts of aggression.

New Government, Same Silence

While the new faces in Israel’s government are certainly more extreme in their openness about crushing Palestinian rights, it should be noted that the supposedly moderate government that came before it presided over the deadliest year for Palestinians in sixteen years.

This included the Israeli Occupation Forces’ (IOF) deliberate killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and the launching of “preemptive” airstrikes on Gaza last August, resulting in the deaths of forty-nine Palestinians, including seventeen children.

These appalling attacks constituted particularly well-publicized examples of Israel’s routine killing of Palestinian civilians. Meanwhile, last year also saw the publication of Amnesty International’s landmark report — the third of its kind from a major human rights organization — confirming the Palestinian people’s long-standing charge that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid in areas under its control. The advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) revealed last fall that the Trudeau government rejected the report’s findings without even bothering to identify specific evidence for doing so.

During the violent twelve months of 2022, the Trudeau government failed to offer any sign of substantive pushback against Israel’s actions, and indeed has continued to arm Israel to the tune of $26 million per year.

Shortly after the IOF killed Abu Akleh in May, Canadian foreign affairs staff internally acknowledged that Israel’s narrative that a Palestinian gunman may have been responsible was “largely debunked” and noted that Israel has a long track record of failing to properly investigate when its forces attack journalists. Despite this and dozens of subsequent investigations pointing to Israel’s responsibility for the killing, Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly did not condemn Israel for Abu Akleh’s death and has ignored calls to support an independent investigation by an international body.

Indeed, Canada has been accused of maintaining double standards as it has provided enthusiastic support for investigations into Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, but withholds support for such investigations into Israel.

Right-Wing Nationalists

Following the attacks on Gaza last August, the Canadian government’s only statement came from a relatively obscure Twitter account, which failed to mention the fact that children were killed and defended Israel’s use of force “to assure its own security.”

Notably, at the time of the attacks, Canadian diplomatic staff in Palestine were keeping an eye on a far-right member of Israel’s Knesset who would later be appointed as Netanyahu’s minister of national security: Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir is a politician who has previously called for “disloyal” Palestinians to be expelled from Israel, and is a former member of the illegal Kach party, an openly racist terrorist group that is frequently described as fascist.

In a flash report on August 7, the Canadian staff warned senior Global Affairs Canada officials — including a government unit tasked with monitoring “the safety and security of Canadians, Canadian missions or Canadian interests abroad” — that Ben-Gvir had provoked violent attacks on Palestinian civilians in Jerusalem by marching toward the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

The report noted that during the provocation, Israeli forces arrested AFP photographer Ahmad Gharabli, while video footage on social media showed “violent assaults taking place by right-wing nationalists against Palestinian residents and journalists.” The situation had become so dangerous that the Old City in Jerusalem was placed “off limits” for Canadian embassy staff, and “out of an abundance of caution,” staff in Ramallah were to travel in “[armored vehicles] only for official business.”

When Israel’s November election rolled around, Canadian diplomatic staff explicitly noted that the newly elected Netanyahu administration would be deeply sympathetic to the “extreme far-right” — including Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich — and that no one in his government would “counter-balance some of the more extremist right-wing elements.” Despite these well-known concerns, both Trudeau and Joly warmly welcomed the new government, with Canada’s prime minister hailing “Canada’s friendship with Israel.” Joly congratulated her counterpart Eli Cohen, a Likud member who put forward a bill last year to criminalize displaying the Palestinian flag on Israeli university campuses and said that those who identify as Palestinian would receive help “to move to Gaza on a one-way ticket.”

More recently, Canada’s meek responses to the Netanyahu government’s early aggressions show little indication that this welcoming tone will change anytime soon. When Ben-Gvir marched on Al Aqsa as minister this month, Lisa Stadelbauer, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, only criticized the move indirectly, while Canadian ministers stayed silent.

Earlier this month, the new Israeli government launched punitive measures against Palestinians over a UN request for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give its opinion on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. When Canada criticized Israel’s retaliation, it did so in a separate statement from the ninety other countries that condemned the move, using watered-down language that did not call for Israel’s measures to be reversed and portrayed the actions as being directed against the “Palestinian Authority” rather than the “Palestinian people.”

Just last week, reports emerged that the IOF killed nine Palestinians in Jenin, including two children, along with at least twenty wounded, among them an elderly woman who was shot in the neck. This was followed by Israeli air attacks on Gaza.

Late Friday night, Joly tweeted a statement that indirectly condemned the “violence,” and mourned attacks on Israeli civilians at a Jerusalem synagogue. Joly described the former — the attack on Palestinians — as “recent events in Jenin” and named the latter — the attack on Israelis — as a “horrific terrorist attack.” As of the time of writing, no concrete action has been announced to sanction Israel.”

New Netanyahu, Same Apartheid

The most well-publicized international objections to Netanyahu’s government have stemmed from the fact that he is using the far right’s support to gut the country’s judicial independence as he faces corruption charges. Pundits have expressed fears that these moves are a sign that Israel is turning into an “autocracy.” But the truth is that as an apartheid state, Israel did not meet basic democratic standards long before Netanyahu’s return. As such, meaningful action against the state of Israel was a necessity before Netanyahu ushered in his far-right cabinet and judicial reforms.

The problem with Canada’s continued failure to take meaningful action — such as expelling Israel’s ambassador, suspending military exports, and ending all trade with illegal settlements — against Israel’s new government is not that Netanyahu represents a qualitative change in Israeli policy requiring a radically different response. Rather, it is the troubling reminder that nothing any Israeli government does — whether it be killing children and journalists, or appointing convicted racists and violent provocateurs as ministers — can shame the Trudeau government into changing its relationship with Israel.

For its part, the nominally social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), which last year signed an agreement to keep the Trudeau Liberals in power until 2025 in exchange for a means-tested dental care program, has proposed a thirteen-point plan for peace in Palestine. The plan includes calls for important measures such as suspending arms exports to Israel and ending all trade with illegal settlements. Unfortunately, the NDP’s agreement with the Liberals was silent on Palestine — and on foreign policy altogether — rendering its peace plan practically meaningless.

Unless Canada’s elected left representatives are willing to prioritize international human rights and solidarity, we can expect no real progress toward defending Palestinian rights from within parliament. Until then, Canada will remain a staunch ally of the Israeli apartheid state, no matter how appalling its abuses or how odious its leaders.