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After days of confusion, Trudeau government says it will abide by ICJ on genocide case against Israel

Prime minister, foreign affairs minister issued a statement that left many observers baffled

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a housing announcement in Guelph, Ontario on Friday January 12, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Canada will abide by all rulings arising from South Africa's genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), officials at Global Affairs Canada have told CBC News.

The clarification, issued Monday, comes after days of confusion following verbal and written statements issued Friday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly in response to South Africa's claim that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza in its war against Hamas.

Trudeau's and Joly's statements were widely misreported in mainstream media and on social media as dismissing the South African case and taking the side of Israel. In fact, their statements carefully avoided either rejecting or endorsing South Africa's case against Israel.

The confusion affected one of the government's own ministers and some of its MPs, as well as the Consulate-General of Israel in Toronto.

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian organizations were united in describing the rollout of the government's position as mismanaged.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighs in on South Africa's genocide claim against Israel

"It's beyond confusion. I think it's a total failure of communication," said Michael Bueckert of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which has called on Canada to declare its support for South Africa's case against Israel.

"When we all listened to Trudeau's words, not just us but everyone on all sides of the debate, it was quite clear, or it seemed beyond obvious to everyone, that this was a rejection of South Africa's claims.

"It didn't sound neutral. It sounded like Canada had taken a clear position. And again, that wasn't just us. That was the pro-Israel groups."

Richard Marceau, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said he wanted to see Canada support Israel in the case.

"I certainly had a problem understanding [the federal government's] position, and I know I'm not the only one," he said.

CIJA put out a statement Friday thanking the government for its position.

The meaning of 'does not mean'

The ultimate source of the confusion seems to be the use of the phrase "does not mean" by both Trudeau and Joly. Variations of the phrase appeared once in Joly's written statement and twice in Trudeau's spoken remarks at a news conference in Guelph, Ont. on Friday.

"Canada's unwavering support for international law and the ICJ does not mean we accept the premise of the case brought by South Africa," wrote Joly. "We will follow the proceedings of South Africa's case at the International Court of Justice very closely."

Trudeau used the same construction when asked about the case in Guelph.

"Support for the process and the institution does not mean, per se, that we support the premise of the issue brought forward by South Africa," he told reporters.

Federal government sources have told CBC News that the wording was crafted to indicate that no one should assume the government supports the allegation merely because it supports the ICJ hearing the claim. The sources said the government also didn't want to signal that it was rejecting the genocide claim outright.

But the government's message was quickly abbreviated on social media — and in some news reporting — without the "does not mean" qualifier. That led many to conclude that the Trudeau government had said it didn't support the premise of the South African case — even that it had rejected it completely.

'Quite disrespectful'

Marceau said he doesn't understand why the federal government took so long to state its position, and why it issued it on a Friday afternoon, when it knew the ICJ hearing was coming well in advance.

"As a guy who turns off for the Jewish Sabbath, to have that thing come out literally 20 minutes before I had to turn off for the Sabbath, I thought it was quite disrespectful," he said. "Because we tried to give an answer because we had some of your colleagues that were calling us. So we need more than 20 minutes.

"So to do it so close to the Jewish Sabbath, it was — to me — very disrespectful to the Jewish community."

Advocacy groups weren't the only ones confused. Canada's assumed support for Israel in the ICJ case was widely reported in Canadian mainstream media.

The misinterpretation also was repeated in the Washington Post, where columnist Max Boot reported that "the charge of genocide has been rejected not only by the United States but also by Canada, Britain and Germany."

A widely-followed tracker board maintained by a war studies professor at Kings College London moved Canada from the "neutral" column to the "critical" column with the U.S., the U.K. and Germany — all governments that have rejected the genocide claim.

Even senior figures in the Trudeau government appeared to have missed the message. Health Minister Ya'ara Saks tweeted that "as the Prime Minister said, we do not support the premise of the question."

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, one of the most vocal supporters of Israel on the government side, tweeted that he was "very pleased that Prime Minister Trudeau has made clear that Canada does not support the premise of South Africa's claim at the ICJ. As Marco Mendicino and I have stated, the claim that Israel is committing genocide is baseless and unconscionable."

The confusion also appeared to extend to the Israeli government.

Israeli Ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed simply sent out a short tweet that accurately repeated the phrasing used by Trudeau and Joly.

Israel's Consul-General in Toronto Idit Shamir, meanwhile, issued a statement online claiming that the Trudeau government had taken Israel's side in the case.

"Canada is siding with Israel in its defence against allegations of genocide, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau breaking the silence over the case heard this week at the United Nations' court ICJ," she tweeted. "Canada now joins U.S., Germany, U.K. and Austria in opposing South Africa's claim."

Sources in Global Affairs Canada say the department will now reach out to some of the diaspora and advocacy groups that misinterpreted the government's statement.

Bueckert said the language the federal government chose is "so vague that anyone can project onto it what they want to think."

"Certainly, the public effect of Canada's announcements is that the world believes that Canada has joined Germany and the U.S. in opposing South Africa's case," he added. "And if that's not true, I think Canada needs to issue a statement of clarification, put it on the record and put in plain language what Canada's position actually is.

"It's obviously a really important matter. It's has to do with international law and claims of genocide. I think Canadians shouldn't have to try to read between the lines to try to decode and guess what Canada's position actually is."

While Bueckert's group was relieved to learn that Canada is not taking Israel's side in the case, Marceau's CIJA was disappointed.

"I would have hoped that that the government, as a self-declared friend and ally of Israel, would have clearly come out like Germany and the U.K. did, against the politicization of the ICJ by South Africa," he said.

Marceau said he doesn't know whether the government was trying to be clear or to straddle the fence.

"I can't speak as to the intent," he said. "I can speak to the result when people who are experts in this file don't understand what the position clearly is. And that's not only us. Many other people have commented, saying 'What does the government mean?'"

The court's final ruling on the question of genocide is not expected for at least a year. South Africa has also asked the court to consider a provisional measure that would act as an injunction to prevent a genocide from occurring.

Such an injunction could order Israel to cease military operations or alter its approach in some way. Since the ICJ has no mechanism to enforce its rulings, Israel might choose not to comply.

Such a ruling would, however, put pressure on Israel's allies, including the U.S., which could in turn be expected to pressure the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wind up combat operations or take more precautions to avoid civilian deaths.

If the court were to make a determination that genocide has been committed, it could have a severe impact on relations between Canada and Israel.

At a minimum, it would greatly complicate the sale of Canadian arms or dual-use technologies to Israeli buyers. Countries like Canada that have signed the international Genocide Convention treaty are expected to take proactive measures to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.

The court could also conclude that the Israeli government is not guilty of genocide but has not done enough to prevent one, or that individual Israeli officials are guilty of inciting genocide.

Global Affairs Canada told CBC News it would provide a written statement on its position, but did not produce a statement in time for publication.