Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Statement by Liberal Leader, Bob Rae: The Middle East – Where to Now?

The last month has seen yet another bloody conflict in Gaza and Israel after several months of indiscriminate bombing by Hamas, and an appeal for upgraded status at the General Assembly from the Palestinian Authority that met with an overwhelming vote in favour.


The Harper government needs to keep its cool. Canada now risks losing its way if it does not. Canada’s support for Israel’s security should not mean we lose our own voice as a country that understands, and supports, the Palestinian aspiration for statehood.


The issue is still how that can be achieved. There are forces within the Palestinian political community that refuse to accept the legitimacy of “the other”, and there is always the risk that these forces – fuelled by extremist, even fanatical rhetoric and actions that inevitably trigger a reaction – will prevail.


On one of my many trips to the Middle East a senior Israeli politician – on the conservative side of the spectrum – said that the continued settlement of the West Bank was “bad for Israel”. A “one state” dominated by Israel would mean that Palestinians would have no status as citizens, no real human rights. It would also mean that within our lifetime, “greater Israel” would have a majority Arab population, much of it disenfranchised. This is clearly untenable – Israel would lose its democratic identity.


Those Arabs and Palestinians who deny the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish homeland, have to be seen as opponents of a real peace process. A “one state solution” is a complete dead-end for both sides.


Logic leads back to two states, but these are issues that have to be settled between Israelis and Palestinians in direct talks. President Abbas’ quest for upgraded status at the UN has delayed those talks. The announcement of new Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank is an example of how “tit for tat” escalation can push the parties further apart, not closer together.


When and if negotiations resume, the issues will not be easy. What mediators call “the zone of agreement” has been reached several times since Oslo, but each time talks ended in recrimination and were followed by intifadas, terrorism, and violence that destroyed lives and trust in ways that are truly difficult to repair.


The language of threats and “consequences” doesn’t contribute one whit to the search for peace. President Abbas missed a chance to show that he wanted an immediate return to direct negotiations, something he has said repeatedly in past months, but chose not to say in New York, retreating again to hard line rhetoric. In person President Abbas is conciliatory. But if private assurances and public declarations don’t match, there is always a problem.


When the fighting stops, the rockets stop firing, the speeches are done, the symbolic resolutions are passed, the applause and demonstrations are over, the outstanding issues will still remain: recognition of the state of Israel; agreed-upon boundaries, including Jerusalem; a practical solution to the “right of return”; a workable formula for ratification of agreements within the Palestinian leadership. More particularly, can the Israelis deal with settlements outside the agreed borders and boundaries without fracturing their own society, and can Palestinians create durable, pluralistic, political structures which respect the rule of law, human rights, and democracy?


Canada needs to become as effective, and candid, a partner to the creation of a democratic and pluralist Palestinian state as we have been to the creation of the state of Israel, rooted in our own values and our own diplomatic traditions and skills.


Finally, the other feature of Mr Harper’s foreign policy – a continuing, unbridled attack on the UN, on humanitarian law, on the duty to protect – defies credibility. The deep support for the Palestinian cause around the world, and the overwhelming vote at the General Assembly, is, for better or worse, a reflection of public opinion. It is not the fault of “the UN”. Canada is in the process of isolating itself – and only putting forward monologues that are fuelled by polls and short-sighted partisanship, and which abandon our basic values of dialogue, peace and unity. This is not where most Canadians want us to be as a country. David Cameron and President Obama were on the phone with President Abbas, and are reaching out to Arab and Israeli leaders in the hopes of finding a solution. Canada should be picking up the phone as well, but it may be a while before we get an answer. It’s not always what you do, it’s the way that you do it.