If you listen to this country’s mainstream media you’d think that Michael Ignatieff had finally succeeded, after a few unsuccessful attempts, at placing both of his feet in his mouth this past week. During his recent appearance on the Quebec television show Tout Le Monde En Parle he argued that Israel committed war crimes in Qana, and those comments have produced a predictable backlash from Canada’s Jewish community. Susan Kadis, his campaign’s Ontario co-chair, resigned over Ignatieff’s comments, which she described as “unprovoked” and “very troubling”. Ariela Cotler, the wife of former Liberal Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, quit the party altogether, and in a letter to the National Post described Ignatieff as lacking “moral integrity”, and “sacrificing the truth for personal political gains in the upcoming leadership election for the party.” What nobody seems to have noticed is that it also marked the first time that Ignatieff has fulfilled the legacy many attached to him when he arrived in Canadian politics as the second coming of Pierre Trudeau.
This isn’t the first time that matters relating to Israel have intruded on the Liberal leadership race. Toronto Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a supporter of Gerard Kennedy, was forced to resign as the Liberal Party’s foreign affairs critic after he described Israel’s offensive against Lebanon as being nothing less than “state terrorism,” and Jim Karygiannis resigned as Joe Volpe’s campaign manager over Volpe’s unflinching support for Israel. Surely Mr. Ignatieff, a very smart man in his own right, knew what kind of response his comments would elicit. Why, then, did he decide to issue a statement that would so clearly inflame the Jewish community, and potentially harm his chances of winning the leadership race? Shimon Fogel, chief executive of the Canada-Israel Committee, hinted at a dark political calculus when he said that “he ought to know better and I’m sure he does. So it raises questions about what his motivation was and what his real agenda in going on the record in that way is.” Ignatieff, in other words, played the war crime card to pander to Muslim Liberal delegates, who happen to significantly outnumber Jewish ones. If Mr. Fogel is correct, Mr. Ignatieff is a terrible strategist; after all, this “strategy” has already cost him his Ontario co-chair, who he describes as a “close friend”, to say nothing of the seemingly endless supply of bad publicity that his comments have attracted.
It seems much more likely that Mr. Ignatieff described Israel’s conduct in the recent war as war crimes because he felt it to be the truth. In the Globe and Mail, Shaun Narine observed that “Mr. Ignatieff’s words are also, perhaps, a measure of some level of intellectual honesty on his part. After spending so many years in academia, I guess Mr. Ignatieff is finding it a bit difficult to lie for the sake of political expediency.” Or, as Mr. Ignatieff told reporters in Toronto after his appearance on Tout Le Monde En Parle, “I’ve been a friend of Israel, but I’m a critical friend of Israel’s.” Ignatieff feels, it appears, that Israel’s conduct in the recent offensive against Lebanon is worthy of criticism, and the facts may support such a position. The matter of whether Israel committed war crimes in its recent campaign in Lebanon is, quite understandably, a sensitive issue. Hezbollah rained hundreds of missiles down on Israeli cities for weeks and used Lebanese civilians as cover against Israeli counterattacks, behaviour that clearly satisfies the Geneva Accord’s definition of a war crime. In Qana, the Israeli military took the extraordinary step of warning local civilians to evacuate the town in an effort to minimize civilian casualties. But, as Human Rights Watch observed, “just because the Israeli military warned the civilians of Qana to leave does not give it carte blanche to blindly attack. It still must make every possible effort to target only genuine combatants.”
They didn’t, according to independent local observers like the United Nations’s emergency relief co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, who described the attacks as “indiscriminate and excessive.” 28 civilians were killed as a result of the Israeli attack on Qana, while a further 13 remain missing and unaccounted for. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli rocket units fired 1,800 cluster bombs into Lebanon, containing over 1.2 million cluster bomblets of which an estimated 500,000 remain unexploded, de-facto land mines that have already killed 12 Lebanese civilians. Israel also used phosphorous shells, munitions that are designed to cause fires and are explicitly illegal according to the International Red Cross. The head of an Israeli Defence Force rocket unit in Lebanon, speaking to Haaretz, described his unit’s conduct as “insane and monstrous.” Amnesty International has confirmed these findings, describing the behaviour of Israel – and Hezbollah – in the recent conflict as being consistent with the Geneva Accord’s definition of war crimes.
Irrespective of the facts, Mr. Ignatieff is going to pay a heavy price for his honesty. It may well cost him the race, and the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. His opponents have not failed to take advantage of the opportunity that Mr. Ignatieff essentially gift-wrapped for them; responding to his comments, Gerard Kennedy says that he’s “having a hard time reconciling them with the available information,” while Bob Rae has been relentless in highlighting his wife’s Jewish heritage. Liberals appear set to follow the logic of blogger Jason Cherniak, who in an unpublished letter to the Globe and Mail argued that “we cannot have a leader who would accuse an ally of committing war crimes. If Mr. Ignatieff wants to remain an academic, then he can continue giving such “frank” opinions. However, if he wants to be prime minister then he will have to learn how to speak like one.”
For the past year and a half Michael Ignatieff’s supporters, and perhaps even Ignatieff himself, have been trying to portray him as the second coming of Pierre Trudeau. It was a smart strategy, if not because of the superficial similarities between their intellectual credentials then because Trudeau is the only remaining touchstone within the Liberal Party of Canada that has a shred of credibility after the Chretien-Martin war that consumed the party for the past fifteen years. Whether it was because of Ignatieff’s views on the constitution – open it up, and recognize Quebec as a nation – or his visible tilt towards the culture, and occasionally the politics, of the United States, Trudeau’s crown never quite sat properly on Ignatieff’s head.
On the other hand, Ignatieff’s decision to speak the truth about Israel irrespective of the personal and political costs was very much like Trudeau’s relentless and characteristically Jesuitical pursuit of the truth in public life. Had Ignatieff begun his campaign like this perhaps the Trudeau comparisons would have carried him to the top. Instead, they’re likely going to cost him the position that he wants. It’s not much of a consolation prize, but as a man of letters Mr. Ignatieff may eventually appreciate the irony inherent in the fact that the moment in which he finally began to resemble Pierre Trudeau was also the moment where his chances of duplicating Trudeau’s success began to slip away.
Vancouver, October 14 – 1,191 w.