MONTREAL — Irwin Cotler, the outspokenly pro-Israel legal scholar sometimes known as Canada’s Alan Dershowitz, has been promoted from a backbench member of Parliament to the high-profile posts of justice minister and attorney-general in the new Cabinet announced last week by Paul Martin, Canada’s new prime minister.
Martin, a millionaire businessman and former finance minister, was sworn in as prime minister last Friday after leading a party rebellion that ended the 10-year reign of fellow Liberal Jean Chrétien. His first act was to replace much of the Cabinet, signaling his intention to steer a more centrist course and strengthen ties to Washington.
Cotler, 63, was one of the first beneficiaries. An internationally known human rights advocate and Jewish activist, he has appeared in courts around the world representing imprisoned dissidents such as Natan Sharansky of Russia, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Jacobo Timmerman of Argentina. First elected to Parliament from a Montreal constituency in 1999, he was repeatedly passed over for a Cabinet appointment
“Irwin is a brilliant legal scholar, and he’s dedicated and devoted to human rights. I think that’s a dynamite combination for Canada,” said Frank Schlesinger, a Montreal lawyer who headed the Quebec region of the Canadian Jewish Congress in the early 1980s, when Cotler was the group’s national president. “I don’t think Canada could have found a more able candidate to be justice minister.”
Cotler was unavailable for an interview.
As justice minister, Cotler will have an opportunity to address the Jewish community’s long-standing concern that successive governments have been lax in bringing suspected Nazi war criminals to justice. In recent years, personnel reductions in the Justice Department’s War Crimes Unit have hampered efforts to denaturalize and deport suspected Nazi henchmen.
Cotler will also face sensitive issues of less direct concern to the Jewish community. The Chrétien government had set in motion policies to legalize gay marriages and to decriminalize possession of marijuana. Both policies threaten to complicate Canada’s relations with the United States — relations the new prime minister has promised to improve.
Cotler upset gay rights activists by saying he wants a broad review of the gay-marriage issue by the Supreme Court of Canada. He specifically wants the court to advise whether the recognition of civil unions for homosexual couples, rather than marriages, would be enough to satisfy the equality-rights clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A gay activist Web site warned, “Cotler may be a front man for the conservative/religious elements within the Liberal party.”
Cotler’s appointment also troubles the Canadian Arab Federation. “Mr. Cotler and some of the Jewish lobby have supported [Israel] blindly,” said past president John Asfour. “If he is going to be fair to all Canadians, I think he should cut all his connections with the Israeli government and leave the Canadian-Israeli relationship with Foreign Affairs and the prime minister.”
Cotler is unlikely to do that.
Steve Lipper, a board member of the Canada-Israel Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, hailed Cotler’s appointment, noting that he “has spoken out for Israel consistently over the years.” But he warned that, while Cotler’s views “will be treated with great respect at the Cabinet table, that doesn’t mean he will win every debate.”
Furthermore, Canada’s strict rules of ministerial discipline will now deprive Cotler of the freedom he has had to criticize government policies in public. “If he says anything, it will be behind the scenes,” said Lipper. “He’ll be in a very difficult position, not if the government criticizes Israel, but if it does so in a way that he considers dead wrong. If something like that came about… he might even have to consider resigning.”
The pro-Israel lobby, however, is hopeful. Even under former prime minister Chrétien, he said, Canada was Israel’s second strongest supporter, after the United States. “Paul Martin has had a warm relationship with the Jewish community, and has been sympathetic to Israel and the problems it faces.” If the new government proves to be a friend of Israel, said Lipper, then on occasion his lobby “will have to swallow certain things it doesn’t like or criticize less forcefully.”
Cotler is not the only appointee to signal a pro-Israel tilt in the new administration. Martin’s Cabinet-level picks include two other Jewish appointees: Jack Austin, a Vancouver businessman, was named government leader in the Upper House, and Jacques Saada, a consultant from Brossard, Quebec, who will serve as government leader in the Lower House.
In addition, Martin has named at least three other ministers who represent heavily Jewish constituencies and another who spent several years on a kibbutz. Collectively, therefore, the appointments suggest Martin’s government will have a more pro-Israel tilt than did his predecessor’s.
Martin did retain Bill Graham as foreign affairs minister, disappointing more hawkish elements of the community who view him as too prone to criticize Israel. But as Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, noted, Martin’s often-stated wish to improve Ottawa’s relations with Washington may translate into closer ties with Israel, too.