MP Ya’ara Saks justifies photo with Palestinian leader, 'yes' vote on Palestine motion

'I'm wholeheartedly committed to be in that room with Mahmoud Abbas,' said Liberal MP Ya'ara Saks. The Jewish cabinet minister voted electronically to recognize the state of Palestine, citing 'other commitments' that prevented her voting in person.

MP Ya’ara Saks justifies photo with Palestinian leader, 'yes' vote on Palestine motion
The Canadian Press / Justin Tang
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Liberal cabinet minister Ya’ara Saks is defending her support for Palestinian sovereignty and for meeting with the Holocaust denier who governs the West Bank.

In a shocking interview with The CJN Daily, Saks said it was her “choice” to meet with Mahmoud Abbas last Thursday, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. Photos posted to X, formerly Twitter, shows Abbas holding her arm and hand. 

“Together, we must work towards a solution that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. We cannot give up on that vision for the future, no matter how hard it is at this moment to see the path forward,” Saks posted to X.

Abbas is an avid antisemite and Holocaust denier, who drew widespread condemnation last September for praising Hitler’s genocide against the Jews.

The diplomatic junket has earned the Liberal MP heavy pushback from constituents in her predominantly Jewish Toronto riding.

“You’ve been at the centre of a storm in the Jewish community since the photo,” claimed CJN host Elon Bessner. “Can you tell us the backstory to this whole Middle East trip, and why you had to go?”

“I was asked to go on this trip with Minister [Melanie] Joly. We felt it was important that there was a Jewish and frankly Israeli Canadian perspective … when meeting with our counterparts in Israel and in the West Bank,” replied Saks.

The embattled MP noted her diplomatic junket last week is the culmination of her peace-building efforts spanning three decades.

“Having my voice and my work there was important. It was important to me, and I felt it was important to the community, especially right now,” said Saks.

“The community’s in trauma. The community is increasingly feeling alienated since October 7,” she added.

Israel launched a military campaign in the Gaza Strip following acts of terror on October 7 by Hamas, which left 1,200 dead in southern Israel, mostly civilians, and nearly 240 Israelis and foreign nationals taken hostage.

Gaza’s health ministry claims the conflict has left more than 31,000 people dead and displaced nearly two million more, with the majority of victims being either women or children. Those statistics remain disputed.

When asked by the host about the fallout from the meeting, Saks reiterated the importance of having “hard conversations” amid the rise in antisemitism and the trauma from the October 7 attacks. 

“It’s unfortunate folks are fixated on a photo rather than the important diplomatic work that was done,” she said. “My priority in being in those rooms is to ensure that on the path forward that there is accountability and safety and security for Israelis.”

“Did he have to hold your hand?” asked Bessner. “There are standard practices that happen [during diplomatic meetings], and I am not exempt from them when I choose to be in the room to have those hard conversations,” replied Saks. “That was my choice.” 

“So you chose to pose with him?” Bessner persisted. “I reject that premise as well. It’s not about choice,” replied Saks.

Bessner pressed the embattled minister on the contradictory remarks, who said she would “not back down from the opportunity to be a Jewish voice in the room with the Palestinian Authority.” 

“I would rather they asked me the content of the meetings, rather than focusing on a photo, because it’s the substantive conversations that happen in those meetings that matter,” said Saks.

The minister then justified her “yes” vote on the controversial Palestine motion, which many say rewarded Hamas terrorists by legitimizing their governance in the Gaza Strip.

The controversial NDP motion on Palestinian statehood passed a non-binding vote in the House of Commons Monday evening, earning the support of Saks. It passed 204-118 in the eleventh hour of debate after the New Democrats passed 14 last-minute amendments proposed by the Liberal Party.

Among the amendments included support for "the establishment of the State of Palestine as part of a negotiated two-state solution." The first reading of the motion called for Canada to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian State.

“So the NDP original motion when I saw it … was deeply concerning. Under no circumstances would a position of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state be acceptable,” said Saks.

“So why not vote it down?” asked Bessner. “Could you explain how they decided just to change it as opposed to just defeat it. What was the backroom dealing that was going on?” 

“It’s not about backroom dealing,” replied Saks. “If the government voted no there was no guarantee that it would pass or not pass.” 

“I wasn’t willing to take that risk, that on the record of Parliament there would be a unilateral declaration for a Palestinian State,” she added. “I, along with many colleagues, were determined to ensure that the language of such a motion in Parliament, [that] if adopted, ensured it talked about Hamas being a terrorist organization.”

One of the 14 amendments to the non-binding motion recognized Hamas as a "terrorist organization" while affirming Israel’s right to defend itself. The motion also demanded Hamas release all hostages and cease all operations.

“We won the day, and I’ll tell you why we won the day,” said Saks. “Because … the amendments recognized the things that matter to us as a Canadian government, and that matter to Jewish Canadians, which is that Hamas must release hostages and lay down its arms — that a ceasefire cannot be one-sided.”

Bessner then asked why Saks voted electronically rather than in person. Saks claimed her “other commitments” prevented her from being in more than one place at that time.

Following Monday’s vote, Joly emerged from the Commons proud of their efforts to find "common ground" on an issue that "Canadians have been very concerned about." 

Before the vote, she informed MPs that the Liberal approach to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict would not change, regardless of the result.

The Jewish minister then clarified that parliamentary motions don’t dictate Canada’s foreign policy.

“Except, [Minister Joly] said it kind of did. The next day, she said, ‘Well, we’re going to listen,’” retorted Bessner. Saks said the amendments “substantively changed” the motion in line with Canada’s foreign policy in the region.

“[Minister Joly] has been wholeheartedly committed to [maintaining] Canada’s longstanding foreign policy of fostering and working towards a stable Middle East,” she noted. “Canada’s long standing foreign policy … remains and continues that we are a friend and ally to Israel, and that a two-state solution is what we want. That means we talk to everybody.”

“But Canadians see this trip, and then what happened Monday in Parliament as a signal that it’s Canada’s choice down the road … that [the Palestinian Authority] is the organization the Canadian Government would like to see in charge in any forward motion of peace,” contends Bessner.

“Canada is a country of multilateralism,” replied Saks. “We work with our partners, we work with our allies, we work with friends in the region, and we work with people that we don’t necessarily agree with.”

“I’m wholeheartedly committed to be in that room with Mahmoud Abbas and ensure that … the release of hostages is first and foremost on the Canadian agenda of addressing this conflict,” she added. “And for Hamas to lay down its arms, and that we want to see the violence end. The Palestinian Authority will play a role in that.”

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