Opinion: Canada’s foreign policy and its domestic politics on Israel’s war against Hamas are shifting

The vote in the House of Commons last week on Israel’s war against Hamas represents a shift in both Canada’s foreign policy and its domestic politics.

The Liberal government is now markedly more supportive of the rights of Palestinians and less supportive of the state of Israel than in the past. That shift mirrors changing demographics, and the increasing importance of Muslim voters within the Liberal coalition.

Both the Liberal and Conservative parties once voiced unqualified support for Israel’s right to defend itself from hostile neighbours. But the Muslim community is growing in Canada. Today it represents 5 per cent of the population, compared with 1 per cent who identify as Jewish.

Although data is sparse prior to 2015, it is believed that Muslim Canadians tended to prefer the Liberal Party over the Conservative Party. They were also less likely to vote than the general population.

But the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper deeply angered the community with talk about “barbaric cultural practices” and musing during the 2015 election campaign about banning public servants from wearing the niqab. Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was promising to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada if elected.

These factors galvanized community groups to encourage Muslims to vote. And they did. According to an Environics poll, 79 per cent of eligible Muslims cast a ballot in the 2015 election, compared with an overall turnout of 68 per cent. Sixty-five per cent of Muslim voters cast ballots for the Liberal Party, compared with 10 per cent who voted for the NDP and just 2 per cent for the Conservatives. (Telephone interviews of 600 adults across Canada who self-identified as Muslim, were conducted between Nov. 19, 2015 and Jan. 23, 2016, with an expected margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points 19 times out of 20.)

Muslim Canadians also strongly supported the Liberals in the elections of 2019 and 2021. The party is understandably anxious not to lose that support. I’m told that Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly often mentions the large Muslim community in her Montreal riding. (According to the 2021 census, 18 per cent of the people in Ahuntsic-Cartierville identify as Muslim.)

This is one reason why the Liberal leadership laboured so mightily to find a way to support last week’s NDP motion that would, among other measures, have recognized the state of Palestine. The Liberal caucus was deeply divided on the issue. My colleague Marieke Walsh reports that dozens of Liberal MPs were prepared to vote for the NDP motion.

In the end, almost all Liberal MPs ended up voting for a watered-down version of the motion – statehood recognition was taken off the table – while three Liberal MPs voted against it. One of them, Anthony Housefather, is considering whether to remain inside the Liberal caucus.

This is not simply a question of political calculation. Many Canadians are deeply concerned over the sufferings of the people in Gaza as the Israel Defence Forces seek to root out Hamas fighters.

The Conservatives enjoy the moral clarity of their unreserved support for the state of Israel in this conflict. The NDP place greater emphasis on supporting the rights of Palestinians.

The Liberals have tried to keep both Jewish and Muslim constituencies onside. But as last week’s vote suggests, they increasingly accord a high priority to the rights of Palestinians and to the Muslim community in Canada.

As with other religious communities, Muslims are hardly monolithic. Someone who comes to Canada from Senegal may have different values and priorities than a Canadian who comes from Syria or Pakistan or Indonesia.

And the plight of Palestinians in Gaza may not be the only issue influencing Muslims, who struggle with inflation, interest rates and housing affordability as much as other voters.

Many new Canadians come from societies that are socially conservative. Some Muslim voters may be uncomfortable with the Liberal Party’s strong support for the rights of LGBTQ Canadians.

Finally, Muslim voters for whom supporting the rights of Palestinians is the ballot question may be drawn more to the NDP than the Liberals.

Regardless, the days of Liberal/Conservative bipartisan consensus in support of Israel are over. This is the new lay of the land.

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