This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
QUEBEC CITY — After years of inaction, in 2002 Canada’s Liberal government buckled to pressure and added Hezbollah to the national list of banned terrorist organizations. Since that time, few if any elected officials have mused about reopening the issue.
But this week, during a trip to Lebanon sponsored by a Canadian Arab group, a Liberal member of parliament named Borys Wrzesnewskyj proclaimed himself in favor of taking Hezbollah off the banned list. Digging himself a deeper hole, he went on to compare Hezbollah to the Irish Republican Army.
Poor Borys. Normally, the fatuous musings of a relatively unknown legislator wouldn’t garner much attention, even in the tiny world of Canadian politics. Unfortunately for Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, he was a victim of bad timing. It’s summer, and there isn’t much other political news to report. His comments were unequivocal: when asked if he wanted Hezbollah off the list, he reportedly replied, “Yes, I would.” The optics also couldn’t have been worse, seeing as he is a member of the party which banned the group in the first place. Mr. Wrzesnewskyj later retracted his remarks, but the damage was already done, and the resulting press storm led to his resignation as the party’s deputy critic for foreign affairs.
This incident and the fallout from it have put the spotlight on a schism at the heart of the Liberal Party that has been quietly playing out for years — an internal squabble that puts into question whether the most electorally successful political party in North America can continue being home to large numbers of both Jewish and Muslim voters.
During its 13 years in power, the Liberal government rarely took sides on matters involving Israel. The rule of thumb at United Nations was to abstain on Israel-related votes. Since the Conservatives took over, however, Canada has been siding more often with the Jewish state. And in this latest war, Prime Minister Harper has lined up squarely behind Israel — even calling Israel’s response to Hezbollah “measured.” A key Conservative member of parliament this week compared Hezbollah to the Nazis.
All this has some talking about a potential realignment in Canadian politics, with Jewish support possibly shifting over to the Conservative Party. Looking at it from a pure numbers perspective, strong support for Israel is probably not politically advantageous. There are far more Muslim votes to be had in Canada than Jewish ones. So there is little reason to believe Mr. Harper is doing what he is doing other than he thinks it’s the right thing to do.
But the move has reaped some benefits for him and his party that may have long-lasting consequences.
First, the Conservatives’ pro-Israel stance has won plaudits from Jewish groups and earned converts from high-level, influential Jewish Liberals. One of the Liberals’ best-known and wealthiest members, Heather Reisman, announced she has joined the Conservatives after a being a lifelong Liberal activist, as has Robert Lantos, a well-known Canadian film director.
Second, a deep and potentially irreconcilable divide within the Liberal Party has been exposed and continues to play itself out in the national press. The Liberals are in the midst of a leadership race after the previous party head, Paul Martin, resigned after losing to the Conservatives. The result is a lot of “freelancing” going on by party members. Two of the candidates vying for the top job publicly called for Mr. Wrzesnewskyj to resign over his comments, as did some well-known Liberal bloggers and commentators. Further anti-Israel comments from Liberals have been exposed in recent days. One Liberal youth official — who has since resigned his position — wrote on a blog that his party would be “stronger without these violent Zionists” and that history would remember Hezbollah “as an organization that stood up to the most vile ‘nation’ in human history.”
There was even dissention from Israel supporters in the leadership camp of the purported front-runner, former Harvard academic Michael Ignatieff, after he came out with a mushy, equivocating position on the war. Now Web sites like libsforhezbollah.com and hezboliberal.com have been launched.
As with most political parties out of power, the Liberals are experiencing some nasty infighting. They are also uncharacteristically airing their dirty laundry in public, thanks also to some subtle goading from the Conservatives. But the root problem here is more serious: the Liberals are basically a catch-all, unideological party and will not take clear-cut stands on issues.They have both anti- and pro-Israel factions to appease at once, a chore proving more and more impossible to achieve.
Since the Conservative Party came to power in January, Canada has undergone a virtual revolution in its handling of foreign affairs. For the first time anyone can remember, Canada is taking clear, principled positions on important international issues, especially relating to the War on Terror. This new reality is a welcome development in its own right. If it forces the Liberals to confront their own incoherence on the Israel-Hezbollah war, so much the better.
Mr. Daifallah, a former Washington correspondent of The New York Sun, is a Canadian author and journalist.