John Chuckman: Israel, Palestine and Canada

By John Chuckman

Canada’s Thirty-Percent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, just made a speech at a B’nai Brith banquet. Normally, there would be nothing notable in this, but his words this time reinforced controversial statements he made while Israel savagely bombed Lebanon. He also continued driving an ugly new Republican-style wedge into Canada’s national politics after calling Liberal leadership candidates "anti-Israel."

Harper said that his government supports a two-state solution in the Middle East. That is the policy of most Western governments, and there was nothing original in Harper’s way of stating it. It was the kind of vague, tepid stuff we might hear from Olmert himself.

"Our government believes in a two-state solution — in a secure democratic and prosperous Israel living beside a viable democratic and peaceful Palestinian state."

It is interesting to note the lack of symmetry in Harper’s "secure democratic and prosperous Israel" versus "a viable democratic and peaceful" Palestine. I don’t know why prosperity does not count for Palestinians, but as anyone who understands developmental economics knows, prosperity is key to developing modern, democratic institutions. You only get the broad middle-class which makes democracy possible out of healthy growth.

I suspect Harper was signaling, while calling for peace with two states, hardly a stirring theme for a B’nai Brith audience, that he saw no equivalency to the two sides. If not, perhaps he will explain another time what he did mean.

Harper did not define what he means by viable. Palestine, as anyone familiar with the situation knows, cannot be viable as a walled-off set of postage-stamp Bantustans, the only concept of a Palestinian state Israel has ever considered.

The key element in Harper’s statement is what he means by democratic and peaceful. Those words are not so self-explanatory as they may first appear. Both these adjectives are regularly twisted in meaning, particularly by the United States.

Hamas won an honest and open election in Palestine, internationally scrutinized, but the result of that election was rejected by Harper and others, inducing chaos into Palestinian affairs, the very thing Israel’s secret services likely intended when they secretly subsidized Hamas years ago to oppose Fatah. Hamas has not learned the required mantra about recognizing Israel, yet Hamas is no threat to Israel, or plainly Israel’s secret services would never have assisted it in the first place.

Hamas is not well-armed, nor is it, surrounded and penetrated by Israel, in a position to become so. Israel speaks as though not recognizing Israel is an unforgivable defect, but governments often fail to recognize other governments. The United States has a long list of governments it has not recognized in the past and ones it does not recognize now. This is not always a smart thing to do, but it is not a crime, it is not even a faux pas, and it may just be a negotiating point.

Hamas has not invaded Israel, nor has it conducted a campaign of assassinating Israeli leaders – both actions Israel has repeated against Palestinians countless times. Every time some disgruntled individual in Gaza launches a home-made, ineffectual rocket, Israel assassinates members of Hamas or sends its tanks into Gaza, killing civilians. Presumably, a peaceful Palestine would be one either where there were no disgruntled people or where an efficient police-state stopped them all.

This is a preposterous expectation. It simply can never be. With all of Israel’s violent occupations and reprisals, it has never been able to impose absolute peace, not even on its own territory. There have been scores of instances of renegade Israeli settlers shooting innocent Palestinians picking olives or tending sheep, and there have been mass murders of Palestinians a number of times, as at the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount. How much less able is any Palestinian authority to enforce absolute peace when Israel allows it pitifully limited resources and freedom of movement?

Realistically, the expectation for absolute peace should be interpreted as a deliberate barrier to a genuine peace settlement. Why would Israel use a barrier to peace when its official statements never fail to mention peace?

Because most leaders of Israel, probably all of them, have never given up the frenzied dream of achieving Greater Israel, a concept which allows for no West Bank and no Palestinians. Not every leader has spoken in public on this subject, but a number have. Other prominent figures in Israel from time to time also have spoken in favor of this destructive goal.

There seems no rational explanation, other than wide support of this goal, for Israel’s persistent refusal to comply with agreements which could have produced peace, the Oslo Accords perhaps being the greatest example. Israel worked overtime to destroy the Oslo Accords, always attributing their failure in public to the very Palestinians who had worked hard to see the Accords born. More extreme Israeli politicians openly rejected the Accords from the start.

The crescendo statement in Harper’s speech, his voice rising in force and his audience literally rising to its feet, was, "The state of Israel, a democratic nation, was attacked by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization — in fact a terrorist organization listed illegal in this country," and "When it comes to dealing with a war between Israel and a terrorist organization, this country and this government cannot and will never be neutral."

Harper’s definition of democracy appears to be the American one: those governments are democratic who agree with American policy. We know America has overthrown many democratic governments in the postwar world, including those in Haiti, Chile, Iran, and Guatemala. Today it threatens a cleanly-elected government in Venezuela and utterly ignores a cleanly-elected government in Palestine.

America shows itself always ready to work with anti-human rights blackguards when it feels important interests are at stake, General Musharraf of Pakistan and some of the dreadful Northern Alliance warlords in Afghanistan being current examples. There were dozens more during the Cold War, including the Romanian Dracula Ceaucescu and the Shah of Iran, put into power by a coup that toppled a democratic government. The American definition of democracy is highly selective at best.

Israel has demonstrated a similar understanding of democracy from the beginning. Israel was ready to help France and Britain invade Suez in the 1950s, an action which represented a last ugly gasp of 19th century colonialism. Israel worked closely for years with apartheid South Africa, even secretly assisting it in developing and testing a nuclear weapon (weapons and facilities were removed by the United States when the ANC took power). Savak, the Shah’s secret police, whose specialty was pulling out people’s finger nails, was trained by American and Israeli agents.

Harper’s statement of total support for Israel in Lebanon is not in keeping with traditional Canadian views and policies. Canadians want balance and fairness. Unqualified support for Israel is tantamount to giving it a free pass to repeat the many savage things it has done, things most Canadians do not support.

Israel has proven, over and over again, it needs the restraining influence of others. Criticizing Israel does not make anyone anti-Israeli. Israel, sadly, has done many shameful things that demand criticism from those who love freedom and human rights, starting with its keeping a giant open-air prison going for forty years.

Harper should know that when Israeli leaders such as Olmert or Sharon speak of two states, they do not mean the same thing that reasonable observers might expect.

They mean a powerless, walled-in rump state in which elections must consistently support Israel’s view of just about everything, a state whose access to the world is effectively controlled by Israel, and a state whose citizens have no claims whatsoever for homes, farms, and other property seized by Israel. The hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, living on property taken bit by bit since the Six Day War are there to stay. Palestinians’ property rights to homes and institutions in Jerusalem, from which they are being gradually pushed, are being voided.

Israel has invaded Lebanon twice with no legitimate justification. It killed many thousands the first time and about 1,600 the last time. It flattened the beautiful city of Beirut the first time and a fair portion of the re-built city last time. It dropped thousands of cluster bombs, the most vicious weapon in the American arsenal, onto civilian areas. In effect, this action created a giant minefield, an illegal act under international treaty, with mines which explode with flesh-mangling bits of razor wire.

The Hezbollah that was Israel’s excuse for invading Lebanon last time never invaded Israel. They launch their relatively ineffective Katysha rockets only when Israeli forces violate the border, which they do with some regularity in secret. Hezbollah’s main function, despite all the rhetoric about terrorists, has been as a guerilla force opposed to Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel has long desired to expand its borders into that region, and there are statements on record to that effect, another aspect of Greater Israel. Israel occupied southern Lebanon for many years after its first invasion, and still held on to an enclave after its withdrawal.

Democratic values are not just about holding elections now and then. Otherwise, apartheid South Africa would have deserved our support. So would Northern Ireland when it repressed Catholics for decades. So, in fact, would the former American Confederacy. These states all had elections but only some people could vote, and other people were treated horribly.

Democratic values must reflect respect for human rights, which apply to all, something about which Israel has been particularly blind. There are no rights for Palestinians. Indeed, Israel has no Bill or Charter of Rights even for its own citizens because of the near impossibility of defining rights in a state characterized by so many restrictions and theocratic principles.

The relatively small number of Arabic people given Israeli citizenship, roughly 19% of the population, descended from 150,000 who remained in Israel after 1948, mainly those who were not intimidated by early Israeli terror groups like Irgun and the Stern Gang into running away or who simply could not escape. Despite subsidized immigration to Israel, accounting for the bulk of Jewish population growth, Israeli Arabs have managed roughly to keep their fraction of the population through high birth rates. They are, however, under constant pressure, often being treated as less than equal citizens. On many occasions, prominent Israelis have called for their removal.

According to a recent study of Jewish Israeli attitudes, 41 percent think Arab citizens should be encouraged by the government to leave Israel, and 40 percent want segregated public facilities for Arabs. The survey also found 68 percent of Israeli Jews would not live in an apartment building with Arabs, and 46 percent would not let Arabs visit their homes.

Harper’s dichotomy between democracy and terror, the crescendo subject of his speech, is simply nonsense. It mimics Bush’s garbled words about terrorists versus American freedoms or everyone’s being with us or against us. Israel is not so admirable a democracy nor is Hezbollah so terrible a group as he would have us believe.

-John Chuckman, a lifelong student of history, is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.

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