By PAUL LUNGEN, Staff Reporter
Thursday, 24 April 2008
TORONTO —Deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, RIGHT, said he wanted to “clear up misunderstandings” – particularly his accusation that Israel committed a war crime during its 2006 war with Hezbollah – and in a public forum at Holy Blossom Temple, he presented the case for why his support for the Jewish state remains strong.
Ignatieff said his ties to Israel “run deep,” his personal history is tied up with that of the Jewish state, and one of the greatest intellectual influences on his life was liberal Zionist thinker Isaiah Berlin.
In the public question period which followed his talk, Ignatieff was asked why he said Israel committed a war crime when there was no proof of guilt. He was also told Liberal policy at the UN was hostile to Israel.
Ignatieff said Israel must retain its moral identity when responding to terrorist provocations.
In other questions, he was asked why he endorsed a book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy) that argued Jews had too much influence over U.S. Mideast policy. Ignatieff responded that he had endorsed an earlier book. Furthermore, the authors were friends and he wouldn’t disavow their book, he said.
He was asked why a Canadian envoy under a Liberal government stood at attention during former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s funeral. Ignatieff replied that he would not personally have attended the funeral, but it “was a Palestinian occasion, not just the burial of a man who, in my view, betrayed his people.”
Ignatieff also responded to a suggestion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been friendlier to Israel than previous Liberal governments had been, and that Harper better understands the threat of international terrorism.
Ignatieff said he expended political capital voting for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. He did see “the big picture” – how the threat posed by the Taliban is linked to the terrorist threats facing Israel.
Turning to the to term “Islamofascism,” Ignatieff said, “I’m not sure that calling it fascism is descriptively accurate… It’s bad, but different [than in the 1930s].”
He added: “We face a threat from terrorists who have hijacked a religion” and use it for vicious purposes, he said.
Ultimately, he will “be a good friend to a country I respect,” he said.
The audience of 350 received his message politely and occasionally applauded his remarks, but based on the often skeptical questions posed to him after his address, some in the community may need more convincing.
Ignatieff was joined in the April 13 public forum by University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun. The event was sponsored by the Canadian Coalition for Democracies and Holy Blossom.
At the heart of Ignatieff’s woes was his statement during the war with Hezbollah that Israel committed a “war crime” in the bombing of the south Lebanon village of Qana.
At the time, Israel responded to the firing of 150 rockets from Qana and its environs with three missile attacks. One occurred near midnight, and seven or eight hours later, a building collapsed, killing dozens of civilians. Initial reports indicated that 56 people died, but that number was later reduced to 28.
Ignatieff said he had been asked his view of the Israeli attack, and when he called it a war crime, “all hell broke loose.”
He was quickly labelled an anti-Semite and friends deserted him. “It was the most painful experience of my short political life,” he said.
Ignatieff said the comment was “an error.
“I meant only that in defending itself, Israel may not have complied with the Geneva Convention.” He said he never intended to find an equivalence between Israel’s actions and those of its foes.
Ignatieff, who lost a Liberal Party leadership bid to Stéphane Dion, said the mistake has cast a shadow on his relations “with a community with which I feel deep respect.” He has subsequently reached out to community leaders to mend fences, and he took part in a trip to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee, a pro-Israel advocacy group. There he personally witnessed “the Hezbollah threat to Israel’s security,” he said.
Speaking at Holy Blossom is part of the process of reaching out to the Jewish community to “rebuild trust” and set the record straight, he added.
“It is ridiculous to suggest the Liberal Party is equivocal to Israel.”
Ignatieff said Israel and the Palestinians have legitimate rights to statehood, but “Canada can’t remain neutral” between Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which seek the country’s destruction. Iran, too, threatens Israel, he said. He described a visit to Tehran, where he saw 70-foot posters attacking the Jewish state.
“I don’t need to be told the state of Iran poses a real and present danger to Israel,” he said.
Turning to the Liberal Party’s record, he said it would never support one-sided resolutions against Israel at the United Nations, noting the party opposed the resolution equating Zionism with racism and another that labelled Israel an apartheid state.
Canada should not participate in the second United Nations conference against racism next year in Durban, he added.
At the same time, as a longstanding friend of Israel, Canada has the right to “straight talk” with Israel, as Israel does with Canada.
He acknowledged political parties are seeking Jewish votes, but the community will likely not act as a bloc. “You’ll make up your mind one family, one person, at a time.”
He questioned whether most would make their choice based on a single issue. Jews supported the Liberal Party’s vision for “a decent Canada” and its policies on health care and aboriginal rights among others, he said.
Ignatieff said Canada should support Israel as a fellow democracy and “we stand with democracies against terrorist groups wherever we find them.”
Prior to the evening’s public question period, Braun confronted Ignatieff on the issue of using “disproportionate” force against terrorists.
Israel might legitimately resent being lectured that its military responses to terrorism are outside international law when it risks the lives of its 18- and 19-year-old soldiers to avoid civilian casualties, he said.
“It is absurd to hold a country at war to absurdly perfectionist standards,” Ignatieff said, adding that “it’s very difficult to fight by the rules” when one’s opponents don’t follow rules.
Ignatieff said he had discussed the issue of proportional response with Israel Defence Forces commanders and agreed that “it’s a contextual judgment.” Sometimes in responding to terrorist attacks, those targeting return fire get it wrong and civilian deaths can occur.
“The thing Israel cannot do is to descend to the level of its enemies,” he said.
Israel, like any state, must try to avoid civilian casualties. He acknowledged that in criticizing Israel in 2006, “I made a judgement without having the facts. I don’t do that any more.”