MP Irwin Cotler Explains Why Canadians and Americans Differ on Iran Nuclear Deal (INTERVIEW)
“Foreign policy doesn’t have the salience in Canada as it does in the United States,” Liberal MP Irwin Cotler told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. “And the Iran deal does not have the same priority of concern as domestic issues, like health care and the environment.”
Coming from Cotler, who divides his time between sessions in the Canadian Parliament and trotting the globe promoting human rights, combating antisemitism and defending Israel, this kind of statement might sound peculiar. But, says Cotler, ranked by The Algemeiner among “The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life, 2014,” this is reflected in the polls and conduct of the party leaders ahead of the October 19 Canadian general election, less than two months away.”
“The overall orientation – and motto of all three parties — involves ‘what’s good for the middle class,’” he says.
Still, both Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative, and Cotler, on the other side of the aisle, have been extremely vociferous in their objection to the nuclear agreement. And each is a staunch defender of Israel.
Cotler says this is because Harper considers foreign policy to be his strong suit – something atypical of previous Canadian leaders.
What is distinguishable about Harper, says Cotler – a member of the Canadian Parliament since 1999, who served as Justice Minister and Attorney General from 2003 until the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin lost the 2006 election to Harper – “is not his support for Israel, but his mainstreaming of that support as a Canadian foreign-policy principle. So he is seen as more pro-Israel.”
Cotler takes issue with what he considers Harper’s attempt to make this a wedge issue.
“Part of Harper’s campaign is to assert that anyone who cares about Israel should vote for him. But both the liberal and conservative parties support Israel. In fact, while [Liberal Party leader Justin] Trudeau has publicly backed Harper’s position on Israel, Harper claims to head the ‘pro-Israel’ party.”
Cotler agrees that this situation in particular, and the Canadian zeitgeist in general, is different from that of the U.S., where he said it was the left-leaning Democrats who were turning Israel into a partisan issue.
This, coupled with the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, is a source of disappointment to Cotler, who was initially pleased with the election of President Barack Obama.
“I supported Obama because of his championing of human rights and his domestic positions on climate change, health care and so forth,” Cotler says. “Where foreign policy is concerned, however, he has been leading from behind; mostly not leading at all; and when leading, going about it in the wrong way, not only with regard to Iran.”
Cotler says the reason the debate on Iran is fierce in the U.S., while barely discussed in Canada’s election campaign, makes sense under the circumstances.
“The U.S. has led the P5+1 dealings, while Canada is not even a member of that group,” he points out. “And Congress is set to vote next month on whether to pass the nuclear deal, while the Canadian Parliament is not.”
Though a proud Jew with an Israeli wife, Cotler is disturbed by the constant linkage being made between the nuclear deal and Israel. The connection is perhaps unavoidable, due to Tehran’s ongoing threats to destroy the Jewish state and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s exhaustive efforts to educate the U.S. Congress about the dangers of what he says is a bad deal.
But Cotler, an expert in international law, is concerned that this is yet another way of obfuscating the bigger picture.
“The P5+1 focus on Iran’s nuclear program ended up overshadowing, to the point of sanitizing, the severe human rights abuses committed by the regime against its own people,” he says. “As well as its sponsorship of global terror.”
Cotler goes on to describe some interesting differences between the Jewish communities of North America.
“In Canada, the Jews are smaller in number and less dispersed, with 75 percent living in Montreal and Toronto,” he says. “They are a more of a ‘recent vintage’ immigrant population, with a large proportion of Holocaust survivors and their offspring.”
But, he explains, “In general, Canada is a country of hybrid identities; it calls itself a ‘mosaic.’ In contrast, the metaphor for the U.S. is ‘melting pot.’”
The emphasis in Canada, he says, is on identity, rather than blending.
“Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, unlike the U.S. Bill of Rights, actually constitutionalizes multiculturalism,” he says. “In other words, the ‘mosaic’ is a constitutional ethos, not only a sociological and political one. Thus, much of Canada’s electoral politics is organized around ethnic identity – with Ukrainians, Jews, Italians and others paying attention to their own interests.”
Where support for Israel is concerned, the two countries are also dissimilar, he says.
“In Canada, Israel and the Middle East do not resonate so much, while Americans are more engaged in those issues,” he says. “You can see this in public opinion polls, where support for Israel among Canadians hovers around 18% and support for the Palestinians might reach 15%, with the rest of the public undecided or say they don’t know.”
Americans, on the other hand, “are much more engaged, with percentages in the 50s in polls. Indeed, many more American take sides – a majority siding with Israel – than Canadians.”
Canadian Jews, being part of the “mosaic,” do take an interest in Israel, he says. “But the first time Israel became a ballot-box issue among them was in 2011, when, for the first time, a majority of Jews in ridings [electoral districts] that had been traditionally liberal, voted for conservatives.”
This represented a shift in Jewish voting patterns, he said, likening it to the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 U.S. presidential race against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Still, he says, “American Jews rank Israel fourth or fifth on their list of priorities at the ballot box, while Canadian Jews in the last election ranked it first.”
He continues: “From what I can see and appreciate, a majority of Americans oppose the Iran deal, but it’s possible that a majority of American Jews support it. In Canada, a majority of Jews would probably be against the deal, while a majority of the wider population might favor it, partly because they’re not paying attention, and partly because Canadians are fundamentally anti-war, like Europeans.”
Does this lead to accusations against Canadian Jews of dual loyalty?
“Dual loyalty is a classic anti-Jewish trope,” Cotler says. “It’s always going to be there. But you won’t find it the way you do in America around the Iran issue.”
While on the topic of Iran, Cotler is both pessimistic and optimistic.
“The nuclear agreement is a bad deal,” he says. “But my view is that a bad deal is not better than no deal, and that a better deal is still possible. I don’t believe its opponents in Congress will garner enough votes to override a presidential veto. I do believe, however, that the congressional debate could produce an animus and action to improve the agreement.”
It is precisely because Cotler sees the deal passing, “that work has to be done to improve it, rather than leave it in its current form. Changes have to be made, for example, about when the sanctions ‘snap-back’ comes into play in the event of major Iranian violations.”
Cotler concludes: “This is now a game that doesn’t end with the vote in Congress.”