OTTAWA — Canadian members of Parliament are mulling how vigorously and publicly they should challenge moves by Israel's far-right government to curtail the power of judges and expand illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
"Sometimes we have hard conversations, because we're friends. But that doesn't mean that the friendship is thrown out the window," Liberal MP Ya'ara Saks said at a Tuesday panel of mostly Jewish MPs.
She was speaking at a conference organized by the Israeli Embassy to mark the Middle Eastern state's 75 years of existence, which comes as the Trudeau government has increasingly voiced concerns about the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His government has allowed the expansion of settlements that Canada recognizes as illegal under international law— a characterization Israel disputes — and it wants to allow Israel's parliament to overturn decisions by the country's Supreme Court.
Canada has raised concerns about both these moves, as well as an uptick in terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups on Israelis and the Israeli police violently storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem last month.
Tuesday's panel largely focused on the ongoing judicial reform that has prompted mass demonstrations in Israel.
Saks has raised concern about the reform. But she stressed that it doesn't change Canada's long-standing policy of advocating for a two-state solution.
Regardless of how aligned Ottawa is with the Knesset, she said Canada will advocate for self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, and said aid funding for projects that aim to lower tensions between the two is key to building the conditions for peace.
She said that Israeli Canadians, like any diaspora group, often want Ottawa to advocate for issues back home, adding she was concerned that the proposed judicial reform would lead to democratic backsliding on minority rights and Israeli citizenship law.
"Good friends don't let friends climb up trees that they can't climb down," Saks said.
Her fellow Liberal MP, Anthony Housefather, disagreed, saying it's better to raise concerns about Israeli democracy behind closed doors.
"I believe that generally, you want to avoid criticizing friends in public," he said. "Israel is constantly singled out at international organizations."
Housefather said he privately makes the case that democratic backsliding in Israel makes it harder for Canadians to defend the state. He said he'd only speak publicly on issues that affect all Jewish people, such as access to prayer spaces in Israel or who should qualify for Israeli citizenship.
At the panel, Housefather revealed that MPs in the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group are meeting next week to hear from an Israeli government legislator and an opposition politician to understand perspectives on the judicial reform and sort out how Canada should respond.
Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman said she will "never" weigh in on a domestic political matter in Israel because there is no consensus among her constituents, and it only attracts criticism of Israel.
"We need every single last person on board that we can get, and we don't have a lot of friends when things are tough," she said.
Lantsman argued that despite Canada siding with Israel in almost every vote at the United Nations, political parties shy away from condemning attacks on Israel because of electoral politics.
"The numbers game is never going to be in the favour of the Jewish community, which oftentimes stands alone at moments where it's really, really difficult," she said.
Lantsman specifically called out parties' silence in May 2021 as a crisis over evictions of Palestinian families led to rocket attacks on Israel that were met with airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. B'nai Brith Canada documented an uptick in antisemitic incidents that month.
"When the rockets start falling, our friends are fewer and fewer," Lantsman said.
NDP MP Randall Garrison told the panel that he has encouraged party leader Jagmeet Singh "to be more forceful" in highlighting the party's support for a two-state solution. The party has called for sanctions and a freeze on arms sales to Israel, but he said certain elements in the party want to go far beyond that.
"There are some very loud voices in my party who are anti-Israel and antisemitic. I will not deny that," he said.
"I do not believe they represent the majority of New Democrats. They certainly do not represent our caucus in Parliament."
The House of Commons foreign affairs committee voted Tuesday to study the recent trends in Israel as well as violence by terrorist groups against Israelis, with all parties except the Conservatives voting in favour of holding the hearings.
The NDP proposed the study, and accepted Liberal amendments to its proposal that changed a reference to "Palestine" to instead say "the West Bank and Gaza," which is the government's way of referring to those territories.
Earlier this week, Canada followed many western countries in not attending a Monday event at the United Nations commemorating what it characterized as the forced displacement of Palestinians at the founding of Israel, called the Nakba, which is Arabic for "catastrophe."
Global Affairs Canada has not responded to questions about why its delegation did not attend.
Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled what is now called Israel during the wars that followed the UN's partition of what was then British-controlled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states in 1947. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, while neighbouring Arab countries launched a war in opposition to the partition plan.
Israel's UN envoy, Gilad Erdan, had urged ambassadors at the General Assembly to boycott the Nakba event, which he described as a "blatant attempt to distort history." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke at the event, called on Israel to compensate Palestinian refugees.
In the House of Commons earlier this month, Liberal MP Ruby Sahota and NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice had both called on Ottawa to mark the Nakba.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.
— with files from The Associated Press
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected article. A previous version incorrectly stated that MPs Ruby Sahota and Alexandre Boulerice called on Ottawa to mark the Nakba on Monday, and that MP Ya'ara Saks was born in Israel. It also referred to Israel's government as being in Tel Aviv.