Canada Plays the Wrong Hand on Palestine
“Canada views this action as very regrettable and we will be opposing it at the United Nations.”
This was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s response to the Palestinian campaign for international recognition, ahead of his trip to the United Nations General Assembly. It was blunt. It was clear. It was wrong.
For years Canada has played an even-handed role in the Middle East but today it finds itself clearly allied with one side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet Harper’s position ahead of the meetings this week not only appears biased but it also undermines the prospects for peace and the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis.
In 1957, former prime minister Lester Pearson was the first and last Canadian recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his efforts in resolving the Suez Crisis a year earlier, serving as an honest peacemaker between Egypt, Israel, the United Kingdom and France. That perception of even-handedness toward the region has slowly faded over time, in particular since Harper came to power in 2006. In a speech last year, he went so far as to say that Canada will maintain its pro-Israeli stand “whatever the cost.”
The government has doubled-down on its support, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman, a controversial figure at best. This week on his most recent visit, Lieberman labelled Canada “our best, most reliable friend in the world.” There is a lot to question about blind attachment in this impregnable alliance Harper has forged. Is it in Canada’s interest? Does it undermine our reputation globally? Are we unduly ignoring human rights abuses committed by Israel? However, what is most poignant is that Canada’s current position vis-à-vis the Palestinian push for UN recognition may in fact be against fundamental Israeli interests as well.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas puts forth an application for full recognition from the UN on Friday, it will be the culmination of a long struggle for self-determination for a people still without a state. We could debate the history of the conflict ad nauseam and evaluate fruitlessly who is more culpable, but the truth remains that the Palestinians legally and morally have the right to statehood.
The current drive for UN recognition derives from the moderate wing of the political spectrum and is designed to facilitate a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the conflict. The vast majority of countries, including members of the European Union, are likely to vote for the recognition of Palestine as a state; even a recent BBC poll (2011) showed that 46 per cent of Canadians supported voting in favour while only 25 per cent were against. The Canadian position not only will be going against the grain internationally but will also fly against the face of public opinion domestically.
More important, what alternative is Canada supporting? A continuation of the status quo? The empowerment of the more extremist and perhaps violent elements in the Palestinian leadership that only further threaten Israeli security? If formal recognition of a Palestinian state is considered regrettable, then what message does that send Palestinians regarding the entire peace process?
Unfortunately, the Harper government has adopted a belief that being pro-Palestinian equates to being anti-Israeli and vice versa. In fact, this manufactured duality belies a more nuanced reality. By recognizing Palestine, the Harper government would not by any means have to give up its pro-Israeli stance. Canada would still condemn Hamas and other terror organizations. Canada would still support Israel against all existential threats. Canada would still stand against anti-Semitism in all its forms.
Conversely, the message Canada would send is that it supports a peaceful resolution to the conflict based on two states living side-by-side. A two-state solution, however, by its very nature requires recognition of Palestine. By going against this very basic principle at the United Nations, the Harper government is sending a very clear message to both Israelis and Palestinians — it is not just anti-Palestinian; it is anti-peace.