Canada’s Symbolic Move on Arms to Israel

On March 18, the Canadian House of Commons passed, by a vote of 204-117, a non-binding motion calling on the federal government to “cease the further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel to ensure compliance with Canada’s arms export regime.” The original draft, which was driven by grassroots pressure and proposed by New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament Heather McPherson, called on the federal government to “suspend all trade in military goods and technology with Israel.” Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party insisted that the motion would only pass if the language was changed to simply halt the further authorization of arms exports to Israel. Other parts of the motion were also removed or amended to soften the original wording.

Since the motion passed, the governing Liberal Party has been largely downplaying the motion’s significance and its impact on Canadian-Israeli relations. Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign affairs ministry, has made clear that the motion does not freeze existing export permits, and asserted that doing so could hurt Canada’s relationship with allies.  This is a clear reference to the United States as many of these contracts are part of a supply chain that involves US firms. As MP McPherson put it, “They didn’t want the liability of cancelling arms contracts.”

Furthermore, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told the House of Commons that Canada had not approved any military export permits for Israel since January 8, 2024. Her message was that the motion merely acknowledged ongoing government practices, rather than reflecting a major policy shift.

The motion is more a symbolic than a material victory for Palestinian rights.

Aside from party politics and electoral calculations, the motion should be seen as a welcome development in Canadian politics, but it is more a symbolic than a material victory for Palestinian rights. It does not signal that official Canadian policy is moving toward the economic and political isolation of the Israeli state.  Instead, it is a small policy measure likely intended to shield Canada from legal liability for supporting Israel’s genocidal operation in Gaza and to temporarily temper Canada’s support for Israel, as opposed to fundamentally revisiting this support. Civil society pressure should build on this small first step and continue to press the government to adopt a complete and unconditional arms embargo against Israel until Palestinian freedom and sovereignty are realized.

Canada’s Foreign Policy on the Question of Palestine

Defense Minister Bill Blair said that the motion does not alter Canada’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He stated that “we haven’t changed…I would characterize this as a continuation of existing government policy.”

Historically, Canada has always adopted a pro-Israel policy position. Arguably, this position was slightly more balanced in the 1980s and 1990s. But since the mid-2000s, during Paul Martin’s Liberal government, Canadian policy  made a clear and overt shift toward Israel. This position  solidified and developed during Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and has continued since 2015 in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Though Canada’s stated policy is that it “recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state,” the government has not adopted any serious policies to help realize these goals. To the contrary: the Canadian state has resisted Palestinian efforts to place material pressure on the Israeli state, such as through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. In 2016, for example, the Canadian House of Commons passed with ease (229-51) a motion that called upon the government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.”

Thus it is important to situate Canada’s halt to arms exports within the larger context of a Canadian state that not only rejects, but also condemns, any effort to place material pressure on the Israeli state through a global BDS campaign. Defense Minister Blair’s message is a way for Canada to assure its allies that this larger context has not changed.

More Symbolic than Material

When the Commons motion passed, Canada had already paused export approvals in January due to the risk that they could be used to violate human rights. Prior to that, Canada had authorized at least $28.5 million of new permits for military exports to Israel during the first two months of its genocidal operation in Gaza.

According to Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), this means that “Canada approved more exports of military goods to Israel in just the first three months of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza than in any single year in the last 30 years.” The Canadian government continues to claim that it has allowed only “non-lethal” military exports to Israel since October 2023. This claim has been disputed as there is evidence that points to the contrary.

Regardless, Canada’s focus on the alleged non-lethality of its military exports points to how the government fundamentally sees this motion. Its focus is not on how to pressure the Israeli state into accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state and recognizing Palestinian sovereignty. Rather, its goal is to carry on with its strong alliance with Israel but within a framework that does not implicate Canada in Israeli crimes. Indeed, it is likely that concerns over such an implication, especially after South Africa announced it would charge the Israeli state with genocide at the International Court of Justice, drove the government’s January decision to halt arms exports.

The Canadian government continues to claim that it has allowed only “non-lethal” military exports to Israel since October 2023.

One of the strongest indications of Canada’s intention to continue an ardent pro-Israel policy is that the Commons motion contains language that speaks to its temporary and ambiguous status. The motion states that decisions over exports will be made by examining “compliance with Canada’s arms export regime.” But how precisely will this be determined? The answer is not clear to anyone, including those in the weapons industry. This lack of public clarity and transparency is itself a sign that Canada plans eventually to resume business as usual, but only after it can make the case that what is being exported does not contribute to the violation of human rights. The government could make this assertion in a variety of ways, from asserting that Canada is only exporting “non-lethal” military equipment (a dubious concept to say the least), to arguing that Israel is acting in self-defense and that Hamas is using Palestinian civilians as “human shields,” among other claims.

Succinctly put, the motion only affirms what the government was already doing, and the government has gone out of its way to show that nothing fundamental in its policy position has changed. Crucially, it has adopted this halt to exports only after it provided an unprecedent amount of Canadian military exports to Israel. Canada can essentially say to Israel, ‘We have done more than our usual part to support you, and for now, we are halting that support for a period of time until the clear violation of Palestinian human rights in this particular operation slows down or recedes from global public attention.’

If Canada was serious about placing pressure on the Israeli state, it would not have stopped at this modest motion, but instead would have at least adopted a full arms embargo accompanied by strong public statements. Instead, since passing the motion the Liberal government has continuously affirmed its strong support for Israel and has made clear that Canada will not stop buying weapons from Israel. Indeed, there is much work to be done on the level of civil society to advance that as a policy position.

Israel’s Reaction

In response to the motion, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Israel Katz said that “history will judge Canada’s current action harshly.” Pro-Israel lobby groups in Canada used their normal hyperbole to condemn the decision, as well. Policy analysts, civil society organizations, activists, and commentators often look to Israel’s reaction to gauge the potential importance of a given motion, policy, statement, or action that is critical of the Israeli state. Though this is a valid mode of measuring significance, it is important to also put Israel’s often over-the-top reactions into proper perspective.

Such exaggerated reactions must be understood in a context where Israel expects nothing short of complete and unconditional support from its allies. When such support is slightly under the threshold of unconditionality, the Israeli state and pro-Israel lobby groups begin to launch outrageous statements that make it seem as if an ally has completely betrayed Israel. This is an effective strategy that has served the Israeli state well.

Take, for example, Katz’s statement that the motion means that the “Canadian government is taking a step that undermines Israel’s right to self-defense,” and counterpose it with basic facts. According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as reported by the Washington Post, from 2019 to 2023 Israel imported 69 percent of its arms from the United States and 30 percent from Germany, and defense imports from Canada represented only 0.05% of Israel’s total arms imports. Clearly, Canada’s non-binding motion that temporarily halts 0.05% of Israel’s total arms imports does not undermine Israel’s ability to wage its genocidal war against the Palestinians.

Israel’s hyperbole is designed to accentuate the misleading idea that Israel is a David facing the Goliath of Arab and Muslim terrorism.

Israel’s hyperbole does not describe reality but is designed to accentuate the misleading idea that Israel is a David facing the Goliath of Arab and Muslim terrorism. This rhetorical technique serves to conceal the asymmetrical power relations that Israel enjoys over the Palestinians, presents Israel as history’s ultimate victim of hatred and blind violence, and helps it secure the unconditional support of governments in Europe and North America.

That being said, there is a strategic outcome that drives this Israeli rhetorical technique: Israel fears the cascading effect. The Israeli state knows that its propaganda machine is effective, but it also knows that the veil it constructs to conceal the genocidal reality is ultimately a thin one. If grassroots pressure in one ally state succeeds in peeling it off, many will likely follow.

Though Canada makes up a very small portion of Israel’s military imports, there is fear in Israel that this could be part of a growing global reaction against it. In the grand scheme of things, this motion is not a great loss for Israel. If this is the first step toward Canada adopting a more serious policy, and other countries start to follow, however, this will be a major loss and concern for Israel. Civil society must continue to work toward that outcome.

Israel’s International Impunity Must End

For real change to take place, Israel’s international impunity must be broken.  This means that Israel must begin suffering material consequences, not just symbolic ones. Civil society organizations, activists, and labor organizations understand this and are already making the adoption of a full arms embargo a clear demand to the Canadian government.

The material isolation of the Israeli state is a critical policy tool to end Israel’s impunity and genocidal policies and operations. It is clear to serious observers that barring material pressure on the Israeli state, it will impede the realization of Palestinian self-determination. The Israeli state is simply not interested in the idea of Palestinian sovereignty.

So, how can Canada, as a middle power that is not a major exporter or importer of arms to and from Israel, place material pressure on the Israeli state?

Canada alone cannot change Israeli behavior, but if Canada and other middle powers begin to follow a policy path of materially isolating Israel, pressure will also build on Israel’s principal ally and enabler, the United States. The United States views Israel as a critical foreign policy asset, and is not likely to change that policy position on its own. But if Washington begins to feel pressure from its closest allies, it might conclude that the cost of supporting Israel is no longer worth the benefit.

Specifically, in terms of the area of the arms trade, Canada should immediately adopt a complete two-way embargo, banning all arms and military exports to, and imports from, Israel. Any such policy should also close loopholes such as sales which could be carried out through a third party, namely the United States. If enough governments follow this path, a cascading effect will take hold and begin a process that could lead to the end of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza and, ultimately, to Israeli settler colonialism.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.