iAffairs Canada‘s Hadi Wess sat down with Emma Swan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and PhD Candidate at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, for an interview on her recent Canadian Foreign Policy Journal article, titled “What Lies Ahead? Canada’s engagement with the Middle East Peace Process and the Palestinians: An Introduction,” co-authored with Dr. Jeremy Wildeman, as well as her stand-alone piece titled “The personal is political!”: exploring the limits of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy under occupation and blockade.” The latter CFPJ article is free to read and you can access it here.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It appears as though a group of countries’ foreign policy position regarding Palestine is shifting to a single state solution. Is this a feasible solution, seeing as this is an ethnic conflict?

To clarify, it’s not an ethnic conflict, in my opinion. It’s a territorial issue, it’s a sovereignty issue, it’s a human rights issue, and ultimately, it’s a settler-colonial project budding up against an indigenous population and resulting in competing claims and struggles.

In other words, it’s about who exercises control over what land. I believe when we frame it as an ethnic conflict, we make it sound somehow intractable and impossible to resolve.

This can, in a way, lead to Samuel Huntington-esque conclusions and the potential for Islamophobic and anti-Semitic consequences to arise from that. However, if we understand it as a conflict over land, territory, sovereignty, and international law, the situation becomes as clear as the Russian annexation of Crimea, for example. This way, it becomes easy to see the applicability and the confusing contradictions perhaps related to Canada’s foreign policy positions around “might does not equal right” and the need to respect the rules-based international order.

Back to the question. My opinion is that, in terms of a one-state solution, the fact that these alternatives are even being spoken about is really important. Given the current reality, it’s been said time and time again that the two-state solution, and thus the whole Oslo framework, is essentially dead in the water. Therefore, the concept of a one-state solution is not new.

For instance, Edward Said helped to strongly popularize this idea back in the late 90s, and more recently, even following Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Saeb Erekat, who was the senior Palestinian official, the Chief PLO negotiator at Oslo and Madrid, and a very strong believer in the two-state solution, has publicly rejected a two-state solution and was advocating for the pursuit of one-state with equal rights.

Today’s international governments’ rhetorical support for a two-state solution functions to do little more than acquiesce to Israeli actions and maintain the Zionist myth that holding on to this dream that Israel could be both Jewish and democratic… the current events we are witnessing unfold show that it is not possible.

– Emma Swan

Hence, we need to break with this paradigm and start talking, envisioning, and planning for possible ways forward built in reality. And then if we do this, I don’t see a two-state solution that both sides would agree to really being possible unfortunately. And if we reach the conclusion that a two-state solution is no longer viable, then we need to talk about what a one-state solution would look like. Here I think the viability of a one-state solution really depends on what kind of “one state” we’re talking about.

There are basically two visions that are currently being thrown around and exist on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of what a one-state solution could look like. On one side, there is the political left that sees equal rights for everybody in the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This division would obviously require both Palestinians and Israelis the right of return, full unfettered access to Jerusalem, and religious, cultural, and political rights for all citizens.

The other side, however, sees a more pro-Israel division, where even in the most charitable of proposals in this area, there’s no actual sovereignty for Palestinians, and this is obviously hugely problematic. The vision for this camp advocates for one state with a similar configuration to what we see today: full Israeli control of the territory, two separate sets of rights, one civilian and one military, which is also [by definition] known as “apartheid.”

That’s my analysis of the situation. To conclude though, I would like to state that I’m neither Palestinian nor Israeli, and therefore my opinions of what sort of solution would work or wouldn’t work are of limited importance. However, I think what does matter in this discussion is that we recognize the smokescreen that much of the international community is, at worst, perpetuating and maybe at best being blinded by when we keep talking about the two-state solution. I think we also need to recognize that, given the gross power disparity that exists between both sides any solution is going to require a significant amount of international pressure to ever arrive at what is needed, which is a compromise from both sides.

When did Canada’s role in the Middle East peak in terms of importance, and what developments shaped that role?

Three forms of developments stand out to me. First: the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Second: the Suez Crisis. Third: the Peace Process. In terms of involvement in the region, Canada played a really intrinsic role, which is not talked about very often in the partition of what was then British Mandatory Palestine.

Ivan Rand, Justice at the Supreme Court of Canada, was central in drafting the 1947 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. The Majority Report proposed partitioning the land to separate Jewish and Palestinian states, which is clearly a very significant contribution to the region.

Moreover, Canada’s involvement became front and centre during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. The Suez Crisis came at a time when Canada was really struggling to move away from its historical role as a loyal colony to Britain and was trying to forward its own identity. Thus, in the face of the crisis and in an attempt to maintain harmony in the “Transatlantic Alliance,” Canada, and specifically Lester Pearson, proposed what was to be the world’s first large-scale United Nations Peacekeeping force, which would be stationed in Egypt and was to police the area.

Ultimately, this provided a way for Israel, France, and the U.K. to withdraw with a minimal loss of face, and for Britain to also preserve its close relationship with the U.S. It’s important to mention that the peacekeeping forces that were stationed in Egypt were built around a core of over 1,000 Canadian troops, which not only forced Canada’s role in the region and in the Middle East but also its global image as a nation dedicated to diplomacy, peacekeeping, and peace-building.

Further, it was Pearson’s involvement in the crisis that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 and ushered in what is considered the golden age of Canadian diplomacy, or what others have called “Pearsonian diplomacy.” On the other hand, there’s an often-forgotten period in Canada’s past that took place in the late 70s, when Canada’s image took a turn for the worse and towards partisanship. This was when Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government pledged to move Canada’s Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would have effectively recognized Israel’s conquest of 1967 territory by force.

While this never happened, it did offer a hint of what was to come to some extent. That brings us forward to when Canada was one of the only 12 countries invited at the foreign ministerial level to the White House in 1993 for the signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent infamous handshake of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Canada went on to take on important leadership roles in some of the most sensitive political aspects of the Peace Process, such as acting as a chair to the refugee working group.

Overall, the aforementioned three points highlight Canada’s involvement in the Middle East. There are definitely more and other initiatives where Canada is engaged (e.g. Canada’s support for the Jerusalem Old City Initiative), but these three were probably what could be considered the peak of Canada’s importance.

It wasn’t really until the Harper government that Canada began to dogmatically support one side, which was Israeli interests, and that impeded its ability to meaningfully contribute to the region.

Highlighting Joe Clark’s 1979 promise and also reflecting on the Trump administration’s decisions, do you think that Canada would ever move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

I hope not. I couldn’t look into my crystal ball and say whether it was possible or not. It’s clear, though, that Trump’s decision was not a helpful move, and therefore, hopefully, Canada would learn from that. In my view, if the reaction had been different to Trump’s move, then perhaps Canada would consider it, but I don’t really think that it’s on the table at the moment.

The Canadian political system is composed of different federal parties that hold different ideologies, principles, and agendas. Is there one federal party in particular that has placed a heavier emphasis on Canada’s role in the Middle East?

Canada’s role and involvement in the region has remained constant and important as well as polarizing throughout multiple administrations. Political parties on the left (the NDP) and the further right (Conservatives) tend to be the ones who really place a heavier emphasis on Canada’s role in the Middle East. That is because they have the most to gain from it, from their constituents, and by pushing the Liberals. For example, we were just talking about Joe Clark’s threat to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and more recently, Stephen Harper’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), and also to make statements such as “Israel has no greater friend than Canada.”

On the other hand, while the NDP has never had an opportunity to sit at the helm of our country, it’s difficult to say what its policy would look like and how it would play out.

However, what we can see is that recently they’ve been far more outspoken with regards to Canada’s stance and inaction related to the recent events in the region, such as the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Gaza. In response to Israel’s habitual means of engagement, in which they breach international law and violate human rights through actions like forced evictions and indiscriminate bombing, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has recently called on the federal government to block arm sales to Israel. I believe that the difference between Conservative and Liberal approaches is their emphasis on Canada’s role in the region.

Seeing themselves as a centrist party, Liberals rhetorically strive to come across as more “balanced.” However, I would argue that this doesn’t reflect their policy, but at least that there’s a difference between the two.

In one of your CFPJ articles examining Ottawa’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), you concluded that “Canadian development and humanitarian initiatives in Gaza are scrubbed of political dimensions and therefore utterly detached from the reality of the occupation and blockade and the subsequent impact on the lives of women and girls.” In your view, what can Canada do to improve upon FIAP and make it a more effective policy?

Firstly, I think they could define what they mean by “feminist.” A major shortcoming of the FIAP is that they never defined feminist – or feminism – and what it means to them. This is problematic because it leaves open for interpretation the very foundation of what this policy is predicated on.

That being said, despite a lack of definition of feminism, what all “feminisms” share and have in common is a commitment to a goal of interrogating gendered power disparities and striving towards creating a more socially, politically, and economically equitable world through opposing all forms of oppression and domination. Thus, to make the FIAP a more effective policy, there needs to be a reassessment around how Canada intends to do this.

It needs to decide whether it’s actually ready to spend the political capital that is going to require in order to adopt feminist principles in its foreign policy. It’s going to require a major shift in the way that Canada does things, and it’s going to require that we throw soft power behind movements demanding equality and opposing oppression.

Human rights and equity are going to have to trump profit, even from arm sales or mining endeavours, for example. They are also going to need to trump domestic electoral considerations as well as bureaucratic inertia.

“The personal is political” is the beginning of the title of the article that you referred to in your question, and it was a mobilizing slogan for second wave feminists to also remind us of the connection between personal gendered experiences and larger shared social and political structures. In other words, oppression faced by women in their personal lives is not just a personal or private matter, but rather, a consequence of systematic forms of oppression that are shaped, facilitated, and connected to politics in an essential and integral manner. This means that political decisions affect the personal lives of women and men, and therefore we cannot address gender equality or women’s empowerment, such that the FIAP intends to do, without getting political. Hence, in order for the FIAP to be a more efficient policy and start to play a role in improving the lives of women and girls, it has to adopt a more holistic and transformative interpretation of feminism – one that doesn’t shy away from politics but instead strives to address the systematic inequalities and oppression and ultimately aims to get to the root causes that perpetuate inequality.

How can the Trudeau government’s Foreign International Assistance Policy (FIAP) be adequately utilized to address the insecurities faced by women in the Middle East?

For any policy to address the insecurities faced by women, it must go beyond the technocratic liberal approach that equates women’s empowerment with projects and simply targets women.

We need to move away from this understanding of feminism as a “project” and as an “intervention.” Instead, the policy needs to respond to the complex power-laden political realities and context in which women live and operate. This is true everywhere in the world, not just in the Middle East. Yet, in Palestine specifically, the plight of women and girls cannot be disassociated or dislocated from the political, social, and cultural milieu in which they live. For the FIAP to address the insecurities faced by women in the region, it needs to apply some sort of a “dual approach” to gender work. By this, I mean it needs to address the Israeli occupation and blockade in tandem with more technical development and humanitarian interventions – essentially the underpinning financial commitments towards gender equality and women’s empowerment under the FIAP with matching commitments to diplomatic pressure to end the occupation and blockade.

Can Canada reconcile its support for Israel with its commitment to developing a “feminist” foreign and development policy in places such as Gaza?

In theory, yes – particularly if we reconsider what is in Israel’s best interest. The current pro-Israel stance that the Canadian government has and continues to take in which it categorically supports Israel to act with impunity, regardless of them contravening international law, is not the only way that a country can “support Israel.” It could also be argued, as Michael Atallah touches on in his piece published in our special issue, that supporting the status quo undermines Israel’s long-term security in fact. By failing to uphold a rules-based international order, nobody benefits – the least of which Palestinians in this case.

While I would never suggest that support for Israel as a country is anti-feminist or not compatible with a feminist foreign policy, I would argue that by failing to hold Israel accountable and protecting it from criticisms related to its transgressions of international law in international fora (e.g. UN General Assembly), as well as shutting down conversations in Canada around BDS and apartheid, Canada is failing its feminist principles and is also failing to address the systems of unequal power and politics that create and perpetuate inequality, oppression, and insecurity. Thus, if Canada’s support for Israel means not being able to call for an end of the blockade and occupation without harming the support, then it cannot reconcile the two. It cannot be both 100% in support of a country’s actions, regardless of their consequences, while simultaneously protecting the rights of Palestinians because the security and well-being of Gazans or Palestinians cannot be advanced or protected without an end to the blockade.

Eventually, Canada’s current relationship and unwavering support for Israel, as well as its corresponding silence around these violations of human rights and international law, inhibit Canada from upholding a truly feminist international assistance policy.

You’ve written that the Trudeau Liberals have essentially carried on with Harper’s approach to Israel, despite occasionally positioning themselves as more “sympathetic” or “progressive” on the world stage. Why is it that Trudeau fears departing from the status quo? Is this approach to Israel based on domestic political considerations, a desire to be “one” with the U.S. on matters relating to Israel, or something else? 

The short answer is inertia (the fear of change). As the government has proved time and again, it cannot break from the status quo.

It really hasn’t done all that much of anything that is bold, despite rhetorical nods and a lot of virtue signalling.

They position themselves as morally superior but haven’t actually done much of anything besides throw quite a lot of money at the problems. It feels like they are unwilling and unable to withstand criticism, and therefore change is going to be fairly difficult. It has been Conservative governments historically that have tried to take a more one-sided approach than a more diplomatic approach. The Harper government moved the goalposts in its approach to Israel, and to move them back now – or to move them at all – will be framed by some as anti-Israel (which it is definitely not).

Thus, in order to meaningfully shift our approach towards one that is more balanced and nonpartisan, we, as a country, are going to have to be ready to articulate why we are shifting our policy and to be steadfast in our commitment to a rules-based international order and supporting the human rights of all human beings. We have basically given Israel a green light and a sense of having Canada’s support categorically with no conditions attached. We have never asked for anything in return, and, in essence, I really think that we’ve failed in our diplomacy, given what diplomacy ought to be about. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to pedal back from that. While I realize there are domestic considerations and groups that are more organized, better funded, and further likely to be heard, I believe that inertia and lack of gumption are driving Trudeau’s fear of departing from the status quo.

In the article you authored with Dr. Jeremy Wildeman, you discuss two different foreign policy approaches (Pearsonian vs. Harperian). Which one do you prefer, or consider most progressive and effective in addressing the Middle East Peace Process?

The realities have changed a lot since the Pearsonian approach. In the most high-level, simplistic of terms, I think the Pearsonian approach was at least predicated on the surface around trying to bring two sides to the table with considerable efforts for diplomacy. However, the Harperian approach is blatantly and unapologetically one-sided with no diplomatic efforts. It is clear to me that nothing good will come with the latter approach.

Do you think that Canada’s failed bid for a rotating United Nations Security Council seat in 2020 can be mostly attributed to Trudeau’s track record in the Middle East? Or was it another set of issues that derailed it?

That definitely was a contributing factor. Canada was up against two very tough competitors, both of whose diplomacy packs a far more powerful punch than Canada’s.

Frankly, Global Affairs Canada has evolved into a slow, risk-averse and ineffectual institution. On issues like this and other pressing global issues that are facing the globe today, the world needs more of a country that’s going to be sitting on the Security Council, rather than just cute slogans like “Canada is Back.” Though, taking it back to Canada’s track record in the region, in the long lead up to the vote, Canada tried so many avenues to garner more support for their bid. They even directly tied their relationship with Israel to this bid. While I was living in Ramallah in 2018, Canada’s foreign minister stated in his visit to Israel, “we believe that our presence on the Security Council can be an asset for Israel.” Accordingly, their policy towards the region is definitely a major issue, which can best illustrate Canada’s ineffectiveness – that is only one piece of the puzzle.

Another unique contributing factor to Canada’s failed bid was an unprecedented move by civil society, some of whom published an open letter to UN ambassadors, urging countries not to vote for Canada. This coincided with a Twitter campaign that targeted UN ambassadors, foreign ministers, and diplomatic missions in Ottawa with a hashtag that indicated “No UN Security Council for Canada.” While it’s impossible isolate the exact reason for Canada’s loss, it is clear that this relationship played some sort of decisive role.

What are your thoughts on Canada’s foreign policy and its shortcomings when it comes to alignment with international law and the support for human rights?

Bluntly, I think there’s a lot of virtue signalling coming out of Ottawa in this regard. If we look at China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc., Canada has repeatedly failed to take a stand and support international law and human rights in some of the most egregious cases around the world. The only thing that Canada has ever emphatically stood up to at times is Russia, which seems to me to be related more to a personal issue for the deputy prime minister than out of anything principled or FIAP-related.

In your opinion, how can Canada improve its role, engagement, and commitment in the Middle East Peace Process and particularly with the Palestinians?

First of all, Canada could heed the policy calls of Jagmeet Singh and block arm sales to Israel. Secondly, Canada could adopt a more balanced approach in voting at the United Nations General Assembly. Thirdly, Canada could join countries like France and other European countries in banning the import and sales of Israeli products produced in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Fourthly, Canada could and should underpin all financial and other commitments to Gaza to the FIAP with matching commitments to diplomatic pressure to end the blockade. Fifthly, that Canada could join the efforts of the United Nations and the ICRC in urging the government of Israel to lift the blockade in Gaza and allowing for the free movement of people, as well as access to fishing areas off the Gazan territorial waters. Sixthly, Canada could utilize its standing in international institutions to support initiatives put forth by Palestinians themselves and the international community, aimed at ending the blockade and the occupation.

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