ANALYSIS | Liberal MPs are conflicted about the Israel-Hamas war, and they’re far from alone | CBC News

ANALYSIS | Liberal MPs are conflicted about the Israel-Hamas war, and they’re far from alone | CBC News

Politics·Analysis

It’s not even remotely shocking that there are 23 people in the Liberal caucus who would like Canada to officially call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict. It would be more surprising if there were absolutely no disagreements among 158 Liberals on such a serious matter.

Liberals not the only political party facing internal disagreements over the conflict

Aaron Wherry · CBC News

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Liberal member of Parliament Salma Zahid arrives at a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Zahid is criticizing her own government's response to Israel's administration amid police violence in Jerusalem.

Liberal member of Parliament Salma Zahid arrives at a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Zahid was one of a group of Liberal MPs who signed a letter to the prime minister calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Within any group of 150 people there are bound to be differing views on the current conflict in the Middle East. Even the average individual is likely to have conflicting feelings about the unfolding war between Israel and Hamas — about the need to respond to the atrocities committed against innocent civilians and about the deaths of innocent civilians caught up in the response.

So it’s not at all surprising that there are 23 people (at least) in the Liberal caucus who would like Canada to officially call for a ceasefire. It would be more surprising if there were absolutely no disagreements among the 158 Liberal MPs on such a fraught and serious matter.

Perhaps the only surprising thing is that those Liberals — along with eight NDP MPs and two Green MPs — were willing to state their opinions publicly. Such expressions of dissent are still rare in Canadian politics (in part because such differences of opinion are invariably reported using terms like “rift“).

But that lack of individual expression from party members is something commentators lament on a regular basis. And while war tends to crowd out complexity (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” — that’s how George W. Bush saw it in 2001 at the start of the “war on terror”),  there are few subjects more deserving of scrutiny and a good-faith debate.

Liberals aren’t the only ones wrestling with this war

And the Liberal Party isn’t the only democratic political entity airing these internal disagreements publicly.

In the U.S., Democratic Party unity was already said to be “cracking” a week ago. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is reported to be “deeply divided.” The Labor government in Australia is said to be dealing with “deep division.” A “mutiny” was even said to brewing within the U.S. State Department — a senior official publicly quit his job because of his misgivings about the official American response.

Even Canadian political leaders who aren’t calling for a ceasefire seem aware of the broad concerns; they’ve been emphasizing the importance of international law and expressing concerns about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

The United States reportedly has advised Israel to delay a ground invasion, in part because very little humanitarian aid has so far reached the area. And the Trudeau government has now joined those calling for “humanitarian pauses” in hostilities to allow for more aid deliveries.

In their letter to the prime minister last week, the 33 MPs said that “as Members of Parliament and as Canadians, we have a duty to be the voice of our constituents in Ottawa.” It stands to reason that many of the MPs who signed the letter are reflecting what they’ve heard in phone calls, letters and community meetings.

Several people including first responders in vests are shown in a tight space inside a home filled with debris and damage. One person sprays water at a fire in the corner.

Emergency services extinguish a fire as Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 24, 2023. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

“I have been on the phone constantly since this crisis began, with my constituents and with my friends and neighbours in the Palestinian [and] broader Muslim community, the Arab community, and they all have been hurting,” Liberal MP Salma Zahid told Power & Politics last week.

“I have spoken to the people who have lost family members in Gaza and who have family members who are still trapped there.”

Publicly available polling data is scarce right now but it seems fair to assume these 33 MPs are representing real concerns sincerely held by significant portions of the Canadian public.

People are dying and suffering. Regardless of where you place the blame for that, the basic and brutal reality is undeniable.

What would a ceasefire accomplish?

But there are still questions to be asked about the utility or logic of what these 33 MPs are requesting. A ceasefire presumably would end the bloodshed, at least briefly. But what then? How would the threat of Hamas be eliminated?

“If Israel were to simply lay down its arms, it remains at risk of seeing further damage done … at the hands of Hamas,” Liberal MP Ben Carr said on Power & Politics on Monday, explaining why he disagreed with his fellow Liberals, even while he shares their ultimate desire for peace.

A teenage girl cries as she stands in a crowd. A woman behind her wraps her arms around her.

Mourners grieve during the funeral of David Carroll, who was killed by Palestinian Hamas militants on October 7, during his funeral in Revivim in southern Israel on October 22, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

But it’s equally fair to question the strategic vision and goals of the military campaign currently being waged against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Even Israel’s closest ally is reportedly asking those questions right now.

“When a lot of civilians (many of them children) are going to die in a conflict, that fact imparts a certain responsibility to think things through carefully — and specifically to think through the question of how things are going to be better at the end of the conflict than they are now,” Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote last week

Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder and chair of the Munk Debates, has argued that the world is much quicker to worry about civilian casualties when Israel is the one waging war. But even if that’s true, such an inconsistency would really only make the case for being more concerned about the deaths of innocent civilians in all conflicts.

The value of debate

In the immediate term, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government seems unlikely to call for a ceasefire. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly sidestepped questions about the MPs’ letter on Monday and Defence Minister Bill Blair dismissed the utility of a ceasefire on Tuesday. But concern for civilians caught in the crossfire is unlikely to abate — especially as Israel proceeds with the sort of ground invasion that’s likely to result in even more “collateral damage.” 

The loss of life is conceivably not just a moral concern, but also a strategic one — the higher the death toll, the likelier this conflict is to inflame public opinion in the region and erode support for Israel.

Armed men wearing green headbands and black face coverings.

Armed men from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, participate in a military parade in Gaza City. ( Yousef Masoud/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Calls for a ceasefire, whatever their merits, at least put the onus on the combatants to justify their actions. Last week’s letter from MPs puts pressure on the Trudeau government to emphasize humanitarian concerns in both its words and its actions.

In its public statements and private conversations, Canadian officials can put pressure on all relevant parties to facilitate the delivery of aid to the Gaza Strip. The federal government can continue increasing its own contribution to the humanitarian effort — an additional $50 million for aid was announced on Saturday.

That might not appease those who signed that letter. Others will still find their demands simplistic. But if the first casualties of war are often complexity and humanity, there is much to be said for a national debate that reflects all the complex and human things Canadians are feeling right now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean’s, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau’s years in power.

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