MONTREAL - Michael Ignatieff, the front-runner in the race for the federal Liberal leadership, has accused Israel of committing "a war crime" during its conflict with Hezbollah last summer.
In an interview on a widely watched Quebec talk show, Mr. Ignatieff apologized for comments in August when he told a newspaper he was "not losing sleep" over an Israeli bombing that killed dozens of civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana.
"It was a mistake. I showed a lack of compassion. It was a mistake and when you make a mistake like that, you have to admit it," he told the French-language Radio-Canada program Tout le monde en parle. "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. That's clear."
His comments, broadcast on Sunday, sparked an angry reaction among Jewish leaders who learned of them yesterday.
"That's appalling. To call it a war crime is totally, totally unacceptable," said Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada.
"I have to wonder if he is pandering to certain delegates who will be voting in the Liberal election for leadership."
Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Canada-Israel Committee, said it was frustrating to hear Mr. Ignatieff's accusation.
"For somebody as well-informed and experienced as Mr. Ignatieff, he should know that is not a reasonable charge to level against Israel," he said. "What he ought to be preoccupied with is the kind of intolerance that gave rise to the conflict to begin with and the extent to which there are efforts to have it leach into Canadian society."
He said his group had been concerned by previous comments about the war made by Mr. Ignatieff's chief Quebec organizers, Denis Coderre and Pablo Rodriguez. Mr. Coderre took part in a pro-Lebanon march in Montreal in August at which some participants carried the flag of Hezbollah, which Canada has classified as a terrorist organization.
Since joining the leadership race, Mr. Ignatieff has had to back down from controversial comments several times. Contacted for clarification yesterday, an aide to Mr. Ignatieff said he would not retract the use of the term "war crime," but said he had been misunderstood.
Leslie Church, director of communications for the Ignatieff campaign, said that even though he prefaced his comment by referring to his expertise in the law of war, he did not intend to apportion legal responsibility.
"This isn't a deliberation that Michael would make on his feet. There is no way that he would make a pronouncement on international law in this format, and that's not what he's driving at here," Ms. Church said. "He meant that this was a tragedy of war, that this was a deplorable act in war, that this was a terrible consequence of war."
The July 30 Israeli air strike on Qana killed 28 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Israel said it was targeting Hezbollah rocket positions and was unaware of the presence of civilians, but at the time Human Rights Watch labelled the attack a war crime.
Mr. Ignatieff, the MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, is not the first politician to get tripped up by the conflict. Maria Mourani, a Bloc Quebecois MP, told Le Devoir in August that her visit to Lebanon persuaded her war crimes were committed by Israel. The next day she issued a statement saying it was up to international bodies to determine what constitutes a war crime.
Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a Liberal MP from Ontario, was forced to resign his post as foreign affairs critic after accusing Israel of "state terrorism" and suggesting Canada should open talks with Hezbollah.
Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said he was heartened by Mr. Ignatieff's use of the term "war crime" to describe Israel's actions. Last month Mr. Elmasry wrote an essay urging Liberals to choose anyone but Mr. Ignatieff as their leader. "He's taking the time to find out the facts, and, based on that, he's correcting his position. We appreciate that stand coming from him," he said yesterday.
Mr. Dimant predicted that Mr. Ignatieff's comment would "jolt some of the Jewish support that was on his side, that thought that he had taken some correct positions in terms of the Middle East before."
GRAPHIC: Black & White
_ Photo: Lyle Stafford, Reuters File Photo; Liberal leadership race front-runner Michael Ignatieff says he was misunderstood when, during a Sunday broadcast, he referred to an Israeli bombing that killed dozens of civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana as a war crime.
Israel's attack on Qana a 'war crime': Ignatieff
Remarks made on Quebec television