By Allan Dowd
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, July 18 (Reuters) - Canada's new Conservative government was criticized at home on Tuesday for siding too closely with Israel over the fighting in Lebanon, where Canadians have been among the casualties.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is costing Canada credibility, and preventing it from playing its traditional role of neutral broker in any Middle East peace effort, acting Liberal Party leader Bill Graham said.
"There are greater geopolitical considerations in the region that mean that Canada has to take a balanced approach... Will we be a credible force in the region in the future? That's a question we must ask ourselves," Graham said.
Graham said that even U.S. President George W. Bush, a strong supporter of Israel, has expressed concern the fighting will destabilize Lebanon's government.
"I have have a concern that the prime minister of Canada is out-Bushing Mr. Bush," said Graham, a former Liberal foreign minister, who complained that the Conservatives have ignored the need for diplomatic "nuance" in their public comments.
"Lose the nuance and (you) lose your capacity to help others," Graham said.
Under former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, Canada had moved away from past wholesale criticism of Israel, but Harper's remarks on the fighting have been seen by commentators at home as striking in their outright support of Israel.
Harper, who defeated Martin in January's election, has defended Israel's incursion as "measured" self-defense, and told reporters on Tuesday the world had to confront groups like Hizbollah, which recommend the use of violence to achieve political goals.
"We don't say they shouldn't be part of the process. We say be part of a negotiating process. But I think we have to hold ultimately responsible for the violence, people who advocate it and act upon those desires," Harper said in Paris on his way home from the G8 summit in Russia.
Graham's comments were echoed by Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democrats, who said Harper had to "immediately correct" the mistake of moving Canadian foreign policy too close to that of Bush.
"Mr Harper has said today in Paris that it's too early to send an international force to the region. I say to you Mr Harper -- it's never to early to demonstrate the resolve of Canadians to bring peace and stability to those who are suffering," Layton told a news conference in Ottawa.
The Lebanese fighting hit home to many Canadians when a Montreal family visiting relatives died in an Israeli air strike that killed 11 people. There could as many as 50,000 Canadian passport holders, including dual citizens, in Lebanon, an official said.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Canada has chartered seven vessels and will start evacuating its citizens on Wednesday from Beirut, but the government has been criticized for being slow to react.
The crisis could pose a problem for Harper's minority government, whose party did not win any seats in Canada's three main cities -- Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Montreal, the largest city in French-speaking Quebec -- and home to some 50,000 people of Lebanese decent -- could easily become even cooler to Harper's government, cutting into Conservative hopes for a stronger voter base in the province.
The party made a major breakthrough in Quebec in the last election and has high hopes of winning more seats there in the next vote. But the Quebec media have largely condemned Harper for his stance on Israel's attacks on Lebanon.
"If the prime minister does not improve his handling of the Middle East crisis, it could become for him ... what Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush: the start of a major weakening in public confidence towards the head of government," wrote commentator Andre Pratte in La Presse newspaper. (Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Randall Palmer in Paris)