An NDP motion puts a big question to the test: Will Canada recognize Palestinian statehood?

An opposition day motion brought forward by the NDP’s foreign affairs critic Monday could set the cat among the pigeons in the federal Liberal caucus.

The non-binding motion calls on the government to take a number of actions in response to the war in the Middle East, including that it should “officially recognize the State of Palestine.”

The motion was sponsored by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh with the party’s foreign affairs critic, Heather McPherson, acting as the point person.

“We wrote this in a way that it’s not supposed to be a ‘gotcha’ motion,” she said.

“This was supposed to be a motion that aligned with international law, aligns with Canadian policy. So we’re hopeful that we will have some support from the Liberals and we’re certainly seeing more movement from them over the last few days.”

‘I expect there will be a split:’ Liberal MP

But the motion is also expected to divide the government caucus.

“It’s not the perfect motion by any means, and no motion is. But when you look at the broad strokes of it, this is a push to support human rights,” said Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who told CBC News that he will back it despite reservations.

“And I think it emphasizes Canada’s role in this, which is to focus on and preserve human rights and peace.”

NDP Member of Parliament for Edmonton—Strathcona Heather McPherson is shown in the House of Commons on April 27, 2022. She is acting as point person on the opposition day motion. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Erskine-Smith, MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches—East York, says he has heard a wide range of views from his constituents on the topic, but “my inbox is full of people saying, ‘We want the violence to end, we want civilians to be protected, we don’t want to see more casualties. We don’t want to see more kids die. And Canada has to do more to end the violence.'”

Erskine-Smith also knows that his view is not shared by everyone in his party.

“I expect there will be a split,” he said. “I think the government position will obviously matter a great deal to my colleagues.”

‘A huge slap in the face:’ Housefather

One Liberal who definitely intends to oppose the motion is Montreal’s Anthony Housefather.

“It’s incredibly meaningful in the sense that this would be a huge slap in the face to the vast majority of Canada’s Jewish community,” he told CBC News.

Housefather, MP for Mount Royal, says he objects to clauses in the motion that call for an immediate ceasefire, and for the suspension of all sales of military equipment to Israel.

He called it an “anti-Israel motion.”

“Because it’s a motion that essentially rewards Hamas for attacking Israel,” Housefather said.

“It changes 50 years of consecutive Liberal and conservative governments positions on the recognition of a Palestinian state to move away from the fact that it’s something that would have to be negotiated by the parties where they agree on a territory and normally do recognize the state.”

A man wearing a suit speaks in front of microphones.
Liberal Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather talks to reporters as he arrives to a caucus meeting in Ottawa on Nov. 8. He has hinted that he may leave the Liberal caucus if cabinet members back Palestinian statehood. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Housefather pointed out that no G7 country has yet recognized Palestinian statehood; Canada would be the first.

Indeed, a map of the world shows a stark North-South and East-West split on recognition. Of the UN’s 193 member states, 139 have recognized Palestine, including almost every country in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe (mostly from their time in the Soviet Bloc).

Trudeau’s eight years in office have produced a more uniformly anti-Palestinian UN voting record than even his famously pro-Israel predecessor Stephen Harper, but there have been some recent adjustments.

Starting in 2019, the Trudeau government began to vote in favour of an annual motion supporting Palestinian self-determination, although the prime minister has played down the significance of the change in comments to the Jewish community.

The Trudeau government has also sought to prevent Palestine from advancing its case for statehood through the courts.

Three different Liberal foreign ministers have written to the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court asking it to refuse to hear Palestinian cases, partly on the grounds that Israel does not recognize the court.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has personally written to Trudeau to ask for those Canadian interventions on behalf of Israel.

When the International Court of Justice met last month to consider the “legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem,” the Trudeau government’s submission again asked it to refuse to hear the case on the grounds that Israel did not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, and that those matters were best left to negotiations between the parties.

The argument is not if, but when

McPherson says that Canada’s official position that there should not be movement toward recognition until after final-status talks between the two parties is “an excuse.”

“This is a moment in time where we need to come up with a better solution for peace in the Middle East,” she said.

Housefather says he agrees that “the two-state solution is absolutely necessary.”

But “this is not the time to recognize a Palestinian state suddenly in contradiction to what our policy has been for decades. Because what this would do is say the policy has changed,” he said.

“Why has the policy changed? Because Hamas started a war. And so I would be aghast, aghast if Canada changed its position as a result.”

McPherson disagrees. 

“I don’t believe that stopping killing children, the end of the bloodshed, the end of starvation, getting humanitarian aid to innocent people, getting the conflict to stop so that we are, we are able to move toward something that’s more peaceful and just for Israelis and Palestinians, I don’t think that’s rewarding Hamas,” she said.

US, UK, France all inch toward recognition

Canada is not the only country where the idea of unilateral recognition of Palestine, without waiting for Israel, has gained ground since the war in Gaza began.

The Biden administration, U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron and French President Emmanuel Macron have all sent signals that they are moving in that direction.

Last month the Biden official leaked the news that it was not just thinking about recognition, but actively drawing up plans for recognition to go into effect once the war in Gaza ends.

That came just days after Cameron, a former prime minister, said British recognition of Palestine “can’t come at the start of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end of the process.”

Last month France’s Emmanuel Macron said his country had come to the same conclusion.

“Recognizing a Palestinian state is not a taboo for France,” Macron said after meeting in Paris with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

“We owe it to Palestinians, whose aspirations have been trampled on for too long. We owe it to Israelis, who lived through the worst antisemitic massacre of our time.”

Warnings of red lines

Some of the measures the motion calls for have already happened. For example, it calls on the government to “immediately reinstate funding and ensure long-term continued funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and support the independent investigation.”

Canada restored funding to UNRWA on March 8, and has said it will support the investigations by both the UN’s investigative office and by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

The motion also calls on the government to “support the work of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court,” which the government has said it will do.

Housefather says he knows some of his caucus colleagues will support Monday’s motion, but he’s less concerned with how backbenchers vote than members of cabinet.

“I will be actively watching what the government position is on Monday, how the vote goes. And I will obviously, as I continue to do, speak out in terms of what I believe is right,” he said.

Housefather hinted that he might not remain in caucus if cabinet members backed recognition.

McPherson says she is hoping for a win but knows the vote faces an uphill climb.

“We’re working as hard as we can to convince folks that this is the right path forward, that this is a fundamental shift in our foreign policy in the right direction,” she said.

It’s not clear which way the Bloc Québécois will go, although the party has sent signals of openness to the motion

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