Thursday, October 19, 2006

Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
All Liberal leadership hopefuls 'anti-Israeli'


Prime Minister Stephen Harper waded further Thursday into the incendiary debate over Liberal leadership front-runner Michael Ignatieff's charge that Israel has committed a "war crime" in Lebanon, blasting the entire Grit hopeful lineup for what he called their "anti-Israeli position."

When asked about the term "war crime" to describe Israel's action against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Harper told reporters at a press conference on Thursday that he found the usage inappropriate, saying "I don't support that view."

But the prime minister went one further, taking a jab not only at Ignatieff, but the entire lineup of Liberal leadership hopefuls.

"This is consistent with the anti-Israeli position that has been taken with virtually all of the candidates of the Liberal leadership, and I don't think it's helpful or useful."

But Ignatieff's leadership rivals may not agree with his choice of words.

"To use the phrase 'war crime,' I think, is most unwise," Bob Rae told CTV News on Wednesday.

Meanwhile fellow contender Joe Volpe characterized Ignatieff's comments as "a rookie error."

In an ironic twist, Ignatieff was attempting to explain a previous gaffe on the same subject when he dug himself into a deeper hole.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on Quebec talk show "Tout le monde en parle," Ignatieff apologized for telling the Toronto Star in August that he was "not losing sleep" over an Israeli air strike that killed dozens of Lebanese civilians in the village of Qana on July 30.

"I showed a lack of compassion. It was a mistake and when you make a mistake like that, you have to admit it," he said in French.

"I was a professor of human rights, and I am also a professor of the laws of war, and what happened in Qana was a war crime, and I should have said that." Earlier in August, Ignatieff admitted that he made a "mistake" in his comments to the Star; and since then transcripts of his interview shows that he prefaced those comments by calling the Qana bombing a "tragedy" for the Lebanese people.

But the interview in Quebec on Sunday marks the first time he has characterized Israel's actions as a war crime.

Jewish leaders reacted angrily to Ignatieff's latest choice of words and demanded a retraction.

In an apparent effort to make amends, Ignatieff told reporters that while he is a friend of Israel he is a "critical friend of Israel."

He added that "where crimes were visited on Israeli civilians, they were visited on Lebanese civilians." But the damage appeared to be done. His comments highlighted divisions not only within his inner circle but within the Liberal party itself.

The co-chair of Ignatieff's Toronto campaign, Thornhill MP Susan Kadis, announced Wednesday that she was quitting over his remarks.

Kadis said she found his comments "troubling," given that Israel was defending itself in its conflict with Hezbollah.

Ignatieff so far has the support of nearly 30 per cent of delegates in the battle for the Liberal leadership, with the less than two months to go before the Nov. 28-Dec. 3 Liberal convention in Montreal.

Harper, who has been perceived as pro-Israeli, has come under fire himself for taking sides in the Mideast conflict.

The prime minister even made waves in international waters in September, when members of the Francophonie summit agreed to a compromise on a contentious resolution after Harper blocked the original proposal.

The original wording of the resolution recognized Lebanon's suffering in this summer's 34-day conflict, but not Israel's.

Harper took a strong stance against the Egyptian-proposed resolution, which most of the 72 members supported. He urged the organization to recognize the suffering of both nations.

After returning to the conference table to hammer out the wording of the resolution, the French-speaking states eventually agreed unanimously to support a compromise that called for the end of hostilities and a return to calm.

It appears, however, that Harper is mindful of the criticism levelled at his unequivocal support for Israel's offensive in Lebanon.

In August, the prime minister appointed a Muslim Liberal MP to be special adviser on South Asia and the Middle East, an appointment seemingly aimed at restoring his political fortunes among groups who say he has been too pro-Israel in his approach to the conflict.

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