National Post Letter

letter to the editorShould any readers take a look inside today’s National Post, they might find a letter of mine defending Canada’s United Church and its boycott of goods from Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Click here to read my letter and scroll down to the heading “… or is it just?”

Thoughts on the New Israeli Government

KnessetOn the same day that the world erupted in joyous, teary-eyed celebration following the selection of a new pope, a slightly less climactic breakthrough was reached thousands of kilometres away as four Israeli political parties, nearly two months after elections, quietly decided to form a coalition government. Right away, the deal seemed like it might fall apart over a last-minute dispute regarding deputy prime ministerial appointments, but two days later, all differences have been ironed out and the coalition agreement signed.

The chances were never exactly high that Israel would bend far enough to conclude a successful peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon. However, what little optimism I had gained after January’s elections has now dissipated almost entirely.

The most noteworthy feature in the new centre-right government is the complete absence of ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in years, enabling the coalition partners to commit to ending draft exemptions and other privileges for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. In itself, this is a good thing and should be celebrated by all who value secular government.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In the Israeli political system, the settler movement has no greater friends, and the peace movement no greater enemies, than the secular and moderately religious right-wing nationalist parties, like Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, which dominate the incoming government.

After the elections, there was some hope that the surprisingly strong showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, with its relatively moderate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might push the government towards compromise. But Yesh Atid never prioritized peace talks as highly as it did domestic issues, and during coalition negotiations, party leader Yair Lapid aligned himself firmly with Habayit Hayehudi’s far-right rejectionist leader Naftali Bennett.

Also, one of the terms of the coalition agreement involves a plan to increase the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset from the current two per cent up to four per cent. This will likely reduce the amount of time necessary for post-election negotiations and allow for greater government stability. But all this will come at the expense of the small Arab parties which could quite possibly be shut out from all future Knessets. Raising the electoral threshold may have the effect of even further marginalizing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The greatest hope for peace in the incoming government lies in its smallest coalition member, Hatnuah, a new centrist party composed of former Kadima and Labor members, which has made the renewal of peace talks its number-one issue. In addition to gaining a seat at the cabinet table, party leader Tzipi Livni will be made the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

It is worth remembering, however, that when Livni was foreign minister in a previous government, Israel killed 1400 Gazans in Operation Cast Lead. For her to be the new government’s strongest voice for peace is perhaps the most depressing development of all.

Two-State Twilight

PeaceFor many years, I have felt that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were an exaggeration. Yes, Israel has been unyielding in its expansion of settlements in the West Bank in clear violation of international law, effectively dividing the already-slight territory into several isolated segments and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible. But Israel has withdrawn settlers from occupied territory before, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Unlikely as it may now appear, it could always happen again.

The above represents the optimistic perspective I have traditionally held. With every passing year, it becomes harder to maintain this optimism. Israeli settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) currently number around half a million — far more than anything Israel has ever removed before. I do not know exactly how close the settlements are to a point of no return — or indeed if they have passed that point already — but what seems obvious to me is that if the two-state solution is not yet dead, it is clearly dying, and every decision to authorize or excuse settlement expansion in the West Bank diminishes its chance of full recovery.

This is the only lens through which to understand last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote granting Palestinians “non-member observer state” status. While Israel occasionally claims to be in favour of some form of two-state solution, as soon as the moment came to put its money where its mouth was, the country led a small number of other rejectionists (shamefully including my own Canadian government) in voting against Palestinian statehood. Then, in retaliation against Palestine for its victory at the UN, Israel announced plans for new settlement construction in a move that will further carve up the West Bank.

The occurrence of these events mere days after Israel concluded its brutal assault on Gaza and agreed to a truce with Hamas is especially disturbing. According to Palestinian parliamentarian and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti:

What worries me most today is that Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians that if you do non-violence, we will oppress you. If you do the most peaceful, non-violent act of turning to the United Nations, we will punish you. But if you use violence and guns, we will respect you. That’s the message that Palestinians are getting, and that’s a wrong message.

Furthermore, in addition to hurting Palestinians, Israel is hurting itself. If the two-state solution becomes impractical, Palestinians and their international supporters will not simply roll over and accept the eternal occupation of Palestine as a fait accompli. Rather, they will demand (and who can blame them?) voting rights in Israeli elections for all living under Israeli sovereignty. The two-state solution will die and be reborn as the one-state solution, featuring equal democratic rights for all people — Jewish and Palestinian — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For most Israelis, this is a nightmare scenario. I am not quite so pessimistic.

Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together make up a natural social and economic unit, and if one accepts the right of return for Palestinian refugees (as anyone who believes in the universality of human rights must), then the pre-1967 borders are a rather arbitrary place to draw the partition line. The only good reason to defend the two-state solution is that it remains the path of least resistance. Majorities or pluralities among Israelis and Palestinians support two states, as does virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, after decades of violence and hatred, there may be some utility in at least temporarily giving each population its own state.

For these reasons, I have always supported an interim two-state period to allow tempers to cool, but have remained hopeful that eventually, after years of reconciliation, a single binational state might emerge.

Naive? Who’s to say? What is obvious, however, is that Israeli intransigence on settlements is eclipsing any possibility of an intermediate stage. A time will soon come — if it hasn’t already — when one state is the only choice left.

Israeli Settlements and the United Church Boycott: Three Common Distortions

Detailed map of Israeli settlementsAfter months of controversy and negative media attention, the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, finally made it official. The church’s General Council voted today to call on its members to avoid buying products coming from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the United States have made similar calls.

Despite the tameness of such proposals (the full text of the United Church resolution can be found here and the report it is based on here), we may expect a continuation of the widespread and exaggerated complaints that have saturated the Canadian press. In the interests of honesty and clarity, I would like to address three common distortions.

Distortion #1: Why Israel? The world is full of tyranny and injustice. Of all the places and issues, why focus just on boycotting the Middle East’s only democracy?¬†

Three assumptions are packed into this distortion: that the United Church is boycotting Israel, that Israel’s critics routinely let others off the hook, and that Israel is a democracy. All three assumptions are false.

First, while it may be true that the United Church never previously boycotted any country other than apartheid South Africa, it is not boycotting Israel either. Its economic action is restricted only to Israeli settlements, not the country as a whole. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, the settlements are illegal. To quote the Convention’s text: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” If international law means anything to us, then what else are we going to do? As far as proposals to pressure Israel go, the Church’s action is limited, moderate, and entirely non-violent.

Second, I am not sure who is responsible for the myth that the Palestinian solidarity movement is fine with atrocities not committed by Israel, but it has proven to be very persistent. Contrary to common right-wing talking points, the movement was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring revolutionaries trying to topple their authoritarian leaders, while the Israeli government has been consistently hostile to democratization in the region. The Canadian contingent of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza even named its ship the Tahrir.

As for the United Church itself, its General Council passed resolutions on numerous issues ranging from the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Aboriginal rights. And within the last month alone, the Church condemned recent acts of violence around the world committed against other Christians, Sikhs, and yes, even Israelis.

Third, Israel is many things, but a democracy is not one of them. There are currently 10 to 11 million people living under its sovereignty, and 3 to 4 million of them (Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. It almost seems ridiculous to have to explain this, but a country without universal suffrage is not a democracy. If Israel wishes to gain this status, it must either give the vote to Palestinians under occupation or relinquish all control over Palestinian land, airspace, and coastal waters so that Palestinians may form a state of their own.

Distortion #2: Why not Palestine? Isn’t it unbalanced to concentrate blame solely on one side in this longstanding conflict?

I wonder where the people making this objection were when Canada put Hamas on its list of terrorist groups and applied sanctions to the elected government that it led. Could it be that balance is not the priority after all?

I won’t discuss the merits of pro-Israel one-sidedness in its many unquestioned manifestations. The topic at hand is the United Church proposal on Israeli settlements. Is it true that the resolution (notwithstanding the explicit demand that both sides abandon violence) asks more of Israelis than of Palestinians? To some extent, yes. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and forced notions of neutrality (that are never applied consistently anyway) ought not to enter into the equation. Israeli settlements contravene international law and sabotage any reasonable shot at ending the conflict. Whoever defends them in the name of even-handedness clearly does not take such concerns seriously.

Distortion #3: In passing a resolution that singles out Israel for condemnation, the United Church is jeopardizing its ties to Canada’s Jewish community.

Most people are not slaves to their ethnic or religious affiliations, and Canada’s Jews are no exception. Despite attempts to sway us with infuriatingly inappropriate Nazi analogies, the caricature of Jews as monolithically supportive of Israeli military policy is false. Many of us are perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves without being blinded by oversimplified tribal loyalties. To claim otherwise is akin to labelling all criticism of Iran as Islamophobic, or all protest against China’s occupation of Tibet as anti-Chinese. Surely we must be beyond that.

And what about the clause in the United Church resolution expressing regret for a previous demand that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? Here we must try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of Arab Israelis. In Israel (not including the Occupied Territories), 20 to 25 percent of the population is non-Jewish. How must it feel to members of this large minority, knowing that the state in which they live is not meant for them — that they are somehow lesser citizens than members of the Jewish majority? This would be like Canada officially identifying itself as a “Christian” or “European” or “white” state. Even in Israel today, there are calls for the country to become a “state of all its citizens.”

The real question is this: should Israel be held to the same standards as the rest of the world or not? Its backers claim that Israel is held to unrealistically high standards — that it is unfairly singled out for blame — and I do not want to see that any more than they do. But is equality really enough for them? Or do they want Israel to escape critical attention altogether — deserved or otherwise?

In passing a resolution calling on its members to boycott Israeli settlements today, the United Church is refusing to play this disingenuous game. And for that, in my opinion, it is to be applauded.

Update 21/08/2012: This post has been republished here on rabble.ca.