In a recent piece by my colleague, Adam Patillo, entitled “On Israel: Principles, Politics, and the Way Forward” the fate of the Canadian-Israeli relationship in light of Canada’s new government, under Prime Minister Trudeau, was placed in the spotlight. The author argues that Canada’s new government should do the “right thing” and support Israel. In this rationale, support for Israel means that Canada should continue to back Israel much the same as it did under the previous government; by taking Israel’s side. In other words, the right thing for Canada to do is to back up Israel’s claim that the international community stands idly by as Iran stockpiles weapons; the right thing for Canada to do would be to continue opposition to the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement – the same one Prime Minister Trudeau has already voiced his opposition to. This article was well-written and brings up the right question; it is a question that will no doubt draw many strong opinions from Canadians. What is the right thing for Canada to do in its relationship with Israel?
This is not a new question, nor has it necessarily had a historically consistent answer. Canada’s relationship with Israel has existed since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and it has wavered much during the last 67 years. There were moments, such as Canada’s support for the partition of between Palestine and Israel, under UN Resolution 181, and former Prime Minister Harper’s “Through Fire and Water” remarks, which indicate Canada had taken Israel’s “side” in its struggle for a secure and safe existence in the Middle East. While recent instances like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s condemnation of Israel’s settlement plans in the E-1 corridor and several protests by Canadians against Israeli action in Gaza during the summer of 2014 either serve as examples in which Canada was not on Israel’s side or which represent hiccups in an otherwise supportive relationship; depending on one’s politics. This, the politics of Canada’s decisions, is what underscored Mr. Patillo’s argument. He asserts that “politically-motivated alliances” are unreliable.
This is true throughout history. Throughout its protests, condemnations, or even stalwart support, Canada was able to affect little change on the behaviours of both Israel and Palestine because those actions appeared politically motivated. Mr. Patillo advocates for a strictly bi-lateral approach to dealing with Israel and Palestine; multilateralism equates to too many hands in the kitchen. So far, though, Canada’s bi-lateral approach has been nothing more than a fostering of bi-lateral relations with Israel. Mr. Patillo implies that support for anything but Israel is politically motivated, but he neglects to mention that Canada’s support for Israel under the previous government was one made under partisan conservative grounds; a choice that has only made Canada yet another symbol of division. Is this truly and utterly the right way for Canada to progress in its relationship with Israel; to choose one side at the expense of others?
To answer this, it is important to look upon a Canada that chose a different path entirely; a path driven by apolitical mediation. Its role as a chair in a multilateral refugee working group – established at the Madrid Conference – aimed at building peace and stability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the 1990s points to a Canada that was seen as being “helpful and supportive to all parties in the region”. At that time, Canada was acting in a neutral and multilateral way. Canada’s role, as one of five chairs of the group, was focused on peace and negotiation; it was living up to its reputation as an unbiased and honest peace broker that it had begun building during its involvement in the Suez Crisis. Its goals were not politically driven to favour the security of one side over the other. Canada recognized the importance of Palestinian statehood and security concerns just as much as those of Israel’s. Canada continued to devote resources and tireless effort to the working group, eventually resulting in a process that, although failed to achieve total peace, continued to reduce suffering, highlighted the issues of refugees, and supported increased funding for UNRWA.
Canada benefited immensely from its role in promoting multilateralism from this process because it was seen as a helpful actor to both Israel and its neighbouring countries; a position that is often impossible to obtain. The difference between Canada the mediator and Canada the side chooser, is that the mediator is able to maintain sensible relationships with all stakeholders in the region as well as prevent human suffering. Rhetorical support for Israel or Palestine has been met with increasing violence and waves of suffering perpetrated by both sides in the conflict. All too often, careless rhetoric, whether its affirmations of support are “right” or “wrong”, does nothing more than stoke the fires of an ongoing security dilemma.
What is the right choice, then?
For Canada, and its new government, the way forward is the way that seeks to prevent human suffering. At the end of the day, and once the metaphors and politics are stripped away, the arguments of each side are arguments for security. There is no doubt that many Israeli’s live in constant fear of the threat of violence, and Palestinians have no lesser right to that claim. When multilateral mediation fails, it still manages to progress towards a peaceful solution. Whereas violence, barring total destruction of one side or the other, does nothing but begets more violence.
This is a lesson Canada has followed in the past, and this is the lesson that the new government should follow now. Luckily, it is a path Canada’s new government seems poised to follow. Viewing Canada’s decision as having to choose between the “right side” and the “wrong side” means that the choice is a false one. The real choice is between prolonging human suffering and trying to end it. If Canada’s new government is a proponent of the latter, then its choice is an obvious one.
Patrick Burchat completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA where he wrote his honours thesis on anti-American propaganda in Cuba and its role as a legitimizing factor for the Castro government. He is currently an MA student at NPSIA and associate editor for North America where his writing has focused on topics ranging from rogue states to Latin American politics. In addition to iAffairs, he has served as a writer and editor at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Image courtesy of Avital Pinnick