Canada’s Progressive Parties Face Gnarly Gaza Politics

News analysis

OTTAWA—The ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel has been particularly tough for Canada’s most progressive parties as they struggle to maintain a centrist position while pro-Palestine activists push hard for a voice in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been spared some of the controversy that has hit the Official Opposition. The Tories have taken a definitive stand for Israel in the current fighting in Gaza, and although some may oppose it, the Conservative base seems to have stayed with them.

Not so for the New Democrats and Green party. Both have struggled with sharp criticism in recent days. On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the president of the Green party had to step down for voicing support for Israel, and NDP MPs have seen their offices targeted by activists furious over the party’s centrist position.

The NDP, whose membership has traditionally leaned toward Palestine in its sympathies, shifted toward the centre under late leader Jack Layton and current leader Thomas Mulcair. That shift has upset some, leading to NDP offices being occupied in Vancouver and targeted by protesters in Montreal and Halifax. 

Mothers and Families for Gaza had around 20 women and children occupy NDP MP Don Davies’ Vancouver office on Tuesday. They want the NDP to condemn Israel’s role in the conflict and exit Palestinian territories. 

Mulcair was accused by one prominent activist, filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis, of muzzling his caucus from supporting Palestine. Activists playing dead in clothing marked in fake blood protested outside his office, and Davis tore up her NDP membership card. Protesters also picketed outside Mulcair’s official residence in Ottawa on Wednesday. 

And Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie faced a similar scene outside her office when 40 protesters picketed, demanding she condemn Israeli attacks on Palestine.

Mulcair has tried to ride a fine line on the conflict, sometimes taking peripheral positions that show sympathy for Palestine without condemning Israel. He recently urged Harper to support an effort to bring injured Gaza children to Canada for treatment.

“I am confident that any action by your government to help enable this humanitarian initiative will receive support among all federal political parties,” he wrote in a letter to the PM.

The effort is the work of Palestinian doctor and author Izzeldin Abuelaish, and the NDP has launched a petition in support. 

“Dr. Abuelaish’s unifying message of reconciliation is an example to us all. He believes that to achieve peace, we must refuse to hate,” read Mulcair’s letter.

The NDP have also called on the government to restart cancelled funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

The Greens also announced support for Dr. Abuelaish’s initiative on Tuesday, coinciding with the resignation of party president Paul Estrin. 

Estrin, who is Jewish, had written a passionate defence of Israel on the party’s blog that upset party members and led some to resign. 

The Greens quickly moved to affirm their middle-ground position, deleting the blog entry and posting their official policy—engaged neutrality— prominently on the website.

The party also posted excerpts from a speech by leader Elizabeth May during the party convention in July.

“I want to at least touch on what’s happening right now in Israel and Gaza, and the Palestinian people and the Israeli people and say, from the bottom of my heart, that Israeli children and Palestinian children have an equal right to be free of bombardment,” May said.

It could be that the Conservative’s firm stance for Israel has inoculated them from protesters who see little point in trying to sway the government position, instead focusing on progressive parties that have tried to straddle both sides of the conflict.