Sunday, 4 September 2011

Canada's Shameful Record Getting Worse

A post in today's New York Times tells us that the Obama administration hopes to avert the issue of Palestinian statehood that is scheduled to come to the floor of the UN when world leaders gather at the General Assembly beginning later this month.

Obama hopes that a new round of peace negotiations will forestall the fallout the administration's certain veto of the resolution will generate.

According to the Times' article, efforts to head off the Palestinian drive have continued through the summer, but have become more urgent as the vote looms.  These efforts included direct intervention by David M. Hale, the administration's new special envoy, and by Dennis Ross, the president's Middle East advisor on the National Security Council. In an escalation of this initiative, the State Department recently issued a formal diplomatic message to more than 70 countries urging them to oppose any unilateral moves by the Palestinians at the United Nations.  As the Times' article noted,
"The message, delivered by American ambassadors to their diplomatic counterparts in those countries, argued that a vote would destabilize the region and undermine peace efforts, though those are, at least for now, moribund." 
The dilemma for the Obama administration is that it does not have enough support to block a vote by the General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinians from nonvoting observer "entity" to nonvoting observer "state".  The change, as the Times notes, would pave the way for the Palestinians to join dozens of United Nations bodies and conventions, and it would strengthen their ability to pursue cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
"Senior officials said the administration wanted to avoid not only a veto but also the more symbolic and potent General Assembly vote that would leave the United States and only a handful of other nations in opposition. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuverings, said they feared that in either case a wave of anger could sweep the Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world at a time when the region is already in tumult.  President Obama would be put in the position of threatening to veto recognition of the aspirations of most Palestinians or risk alienating Israel and its political supporters in the United States."
While it appears that the Obama administration is at least aware of the dilemma it now faces, the outcome is hardly in doubt.  The returning reader to this site (yes, there are a few of you kind souls) will recall my post last month about President Obama titled "Hoisted by His Own Petard" -- it is apropos to recall that post in the context of this bit of new drama.  Obama has courted AIPAC shamelessly and, with it, the substantial cache of American Jewish campaign donations, and he has bowed and scraped before Bibi Netanyahu in a manner that emasculates the supposed power of the United States of America. So while Obama once fashioned himself as the standard-bearer of human rights and democracy around the world including, one would assume, the Palestinians, he seems to have lost interest in this outcome -- just one of his many reversals.

And so, return now to the quotation above from the Times' article that the General Assembly vote would leave America "and only a handful of other nations" in opposition.  It is a certainty that among that group we will find Canada...

Unlike President Obama, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper suffers not the slightest angst on this issue -- he has openly, forcefully and repeatedly committed to defending the interests of Israel, "whatever the costs".  In so doing, he has set out to become the most fervent defender of Israeli actions in the community of nations.  At the Deauville G8 summit, for example, he blocked any reference in the final communique to a return to the pre-1967 borders as a condition for peace -- this, despite president Obama's stated support for it (a position from which he ultimately backed away under withering condemnation by Israel and AIPAC).

Harper defended the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon that killed almost a thousand Lebanese civilians, an unprovoked military action that resulted in the condemnation of Israel by the world community. In fact, from the outset of the conflict, he defended Israel's "right to exist" and described the military campaign as a "measured" response. He blamed Hezbollah for all the civilian deaths, and he asserted that Hezbollah's objective is to destroy Israel.

When the Gaza flotilla was brutally attacked by the Israeli military, it just so happened that Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting with Stephen Harper.  Our Prime Minister did not waste the opportunity to fully endorse the criminal actions by the Israelis, and even thought it right that Israel should lead any investigation into the affair.

Harper's blinding fealty to Israel has in turn puzzled, infuriated and delighted observers of the Canadian scene, many of whom have sought to explain this apparent departure from what is generally agreed to be our traditional even-handed and consensus-based foreign policy.  The widely held view is that Harper's slavish support for Israel is driven by ethnic politics.  A former Canadian diplomat is reported to have told a Liberal Party conference that,
"the scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada meant selling out our widely admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice."
As Yves Engler has noted, however, the numbers don't add up.  He points out that just over 1% of the Canadian population is identified as Jewish.  From the 2006 Canadian census, according to Engler, Jews were the 25th largest group defined by ethnic origin, and only a handful of electoral ridings have a significant concentration of Jews.

As in America, Jews in Canada are politically engaged, are well represented in positions of influence and are a relatively prosperous minority group.  As is also the case in the US, voting patterns suggest that few Canadian Jews cast their ballots based on Ottawa's policy towards Israel, and there may actually exist an inverse relationship to Jewish support.  The reality is that pro-Israel Jewish lobbyists have influence because they operate within a favorable political climate -- as Engler says, "they are pushing against an open door."  

But there was a time when conditions were not so favorable, when Canada did not reflexively side with the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby.  As Engler notes,
"In 1979, at the instigation of Israeli PM Menachem Begin, short-lived Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark announced plans to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city.  Arab threats of economic sanction pushed the CEOs of Bell Canada, Royal Bank, ATCO and Bombardier, which all had important contracts in the region, to lobby Clark against making the move.  And embarrassed federal government backtracked, more worried about an important sector of corporate power than the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby."
There is another motivator that better accounts for Stephen Harper's Israel first, "whatever the costs" policy -- it has been suggested that it has to do with mobilizing his rightwing evangelical base.  As in the US, Zionism is particularly strong among evangelicals who believe that the return of the Jews to Israel will hasten the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse.  It was reported that a Conservative member of parliament recently gave a speech at a major Christian Zionist event in Toronto -- the MP for Essex delivered greetings from Prime Minister Harper, and said, 
"The creation of the state of Israel fulfills God's promise in Deuteronomy to gather the Jewish people from all corners of the world."
Engler notes that about 10 percent of Canadians identify as evangelicals (including a number of MPs in the government).  The president of the rightwing Canadian Centre for Policy Studies was quite explicit when he said, 
"The Jewish community in Canada is 380,000 strong; the evangelical community is 3.5 million.  The real support base for Israel is Christians."
Stephen Harper is himself a devout evangelical Christian, the third to lead the Canadian right (all from Alberta), and the first to attain national power.  He is renown for his absolute control over government messaging, and has thus maintained a relatively low public profile on the issue of evangelicals.  But the religious right in Canada know that Harper is one of their own -- the Founder of Canada's premier Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street proclaimed "We've got a born-again prime minister!".  They see Harper as an image-savvy evangelical who will keep his signals to them under the radar, but it is clear that his faith will be translated into policies that will remake the fabric of the country -- and the evangelical influence is already strongly felt in Ottawa.

And so with respect to the pending UN resolution on Palestinian statehood, it is no surprise that Canada has already signaled its intent to reject any such outcome. Given its deep commitment to evangelical Christians, the Harper government is quite prepared to accept all criticism for its "slavish" support for Israel, and for turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinian people.  In a recent interview with a leading Mideast analyst, Rami Khouri, our reputation as a country that practiced "a sense of decency and fairness in its foreign policy" is increasingly being called into question.  Khouri had this to say,
"I think the critical point for any Western government -- Canadian, American, British -- is to differentiate between supporting the security of Israel and opposing the colonization policies of Israel.  Israel within its 1967 boarders is a phenomenon the world accepts, even the Arabs.
Any real friend of Israel should tell Israel, 'we support you, your security but we don't support what you're doing'."
Canada's reputation, as Rami Khouri says, is that of a fair and honest broker.  Under Stephen Harper's leadership of the Conservative Party, that reputation -- earned or not -- will suffer greatly, and the country will continue to veer hard to the right.  To appease his evangelical base, Harper will perpetuate the misery of millions of Palestinians, as we forfeit any semblance of moral standing in the world.

It is a frightening prospect that Stephen Harper now has a full four years to govern -- he is virtually unopposed in his power to implement his will and prerogative.

Postscript.  The power of the Jewish Lobby in the US has been well documented by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.  Their widely cited paper, as you may recall, set off a fire-storm of protest and recrimination by AIPAC and its operatives -- a sure sign that the authors were on to something.  If you haven't read the paper, do so this very minute.  (Read also the book by Yves Engler, Canada and Israel, referenced below.)  Pat Buchanan famously called Congress "Israeli occupied territory", and it is well known that senators and representatives who don't rigorously uphold the interests of Israel will be targeted for elimination in the next electoral cycle.  And every presidential hopeful must make a pilgrimage to the national AIPAC convention to publicly acknowledge and proclaim their fealty to the Jewish state, often to the detriment of their own country.

There is something terribly wrong with a political system that funds another country to the tune of $3 billion annually, and then meekly allows that country to spy against it repeatedly.  The interests of America and Israel are not the same (nor are the interests of Canada and Israel the same), yet politicians here in North America proclaim Israel first, "whatever the costs".

And then, of course, there's the evangelicals. Upon that base rests the power of the Jewish Lobby.  In America, and now increasingly in Canada, the separation of church and state is disintegrating, and with it the last vestiges of democratic liberalism.

Update.  The smile is fading from the smug countenance of Bibi Netanyahu.  And it puts me in mind of the variously attributed quotation,
"When the government fears the people, there is liberty; when the people fear the government, there is tyranny."
It seems liberty may be returning to Israel.  Since July 14th, when an impromptu tent city sprang up in protest of worsening social issues, dissent in Israel has become a growth industry.  It was reported by TheRealNewsNetwork that on Saturday almost half a million Israelis took to the streets to denounce the government.

From the streets of Tel Aviv, here is a sampling of comments,
"The people demand social justice.  Our Israel demands a change in the set of priorities of its government."
"This summer we woke up and refused to keep going with our eyes closed toward the abyss."
"The circle will keep going until it breaks through the government's walls and it starts to comply with our demands.  We demand to see our government members losing sleep and losing weight as a result of the burden of responsibility on their shoulders."
"This protest will continue until the government resigns and we have new elections."
As the protests have grown, Bibi has remained silent.  With the huge demonstration of dissent on Saturday, he was forced to appoint a special committee to "look into" the issues.  This has done nothing to placate the protesters, who have called the chairman of the committee,
Bibi's man...he was sent by Bibi so Bibi can keep his hands clean without doing anything."
It seems that when government makes a commitment to corporatism and austerity, the result can be the kind of mass public protest and dissent we are now witnessing in Israel.  These events should cheer activists in North America, and may even give pause to the ideologues on the right as they craft their political strategies.


Some recent news reports related to the main post.  The September 13 edition of Haaretz quotes Obama as saying that the US will veto the Palestinian motion for statehood because its approval would be "counterproductive".  Go here, here and here for additional articles from the region on the Palestinian movement for statehood.

And the Prime Minister of Turkey spoke out against Israel's attack on the Gaza aid flotilla; he attached the phrase "Acting as advocates for Israel" to those who remain uncritical.  He also said that he would refer the position and actions of Israel to the Hague for prosecution.

By David.


A Commentary on "Canada and Israel".

Our reputation is darker than most know -- our foreign policy more checkered than generally understood.  A book by Yves Engler brings some much needed and perhaps, shocking, clarity to Canada's real role in the world.

Below is a commentary on Engler's work by Ali Mustafa.

Countless books have been written to date on the Israel/Palestine question, exploring everything from the origins of the conflict and current obstacles to peace, to the role of the major world powers involved and vested interests at stake.  But few books have yet to examine in any depth the nature of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, much less call into question the key political, economic, and ideological forces at play. Yves Engler’s Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid not only succeeds on both counts but manages to do so with convincing authority, putting to rest the popular myth that Canada is, or has ever been, an ‘honest broker’ in the region.

Far from merely yet another account of the ongoing conflict or a historical survey of Zionism -- both of which it no doubt is -- what distinguishes this book from countless others in the field is its decided focus to put Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, and therefore the issue of Canadian complicity, front and center in the debate. Meticulously researched and comprehensive in scope, scarcely before has Canada’s historically one-sided support for Israel and the underlying geo-strategic motives behind it been so systemically documented in a single book.

Engler’s overall analysis in the book is informed by the understanding of Israel as an ‘apartheid state’, which, according to the author, represents the antithesis of contemporary Canadian values and the worst of this country’s own dark colonial past.  About the ‘Nakba’ or the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948, upon which that state of Israel was founded, Engler writes,
“This was the first major act of apartheid waged against Palestinians. Refusing to allow them to return is an ongoing form of apartheid.”  
But the Nakba was only the ‘original sin’; under international law Israel satisfies virtually all of the central criteria of an apartheid state, including exclusive land ownership laws, a vast matrix of military checkpoints and separate ‘Jewish only’ settlements, and the ‘apartheid’ wall in the West Bank highlight only the most flagrant examples of institutionalized racism found in Israel today.

Canadian ties to Zionism are not only well rooted in this country’s past but as old as Canada itself, Engler argues.  “Zionism’s roots are Christian, not Jewish,” he writes.  Paying careful attention to historical accuracy, Engler outlines in detail the rise of Christian Zionism in Europe and all its major players.  Although ‘biblical literalism’ provided the basic impetus for the emergence of Christian Zionism in Europe, Canada’s support for Zionism was originally spurred by loyalty to its closest ally Great Britain, the major world power and key patron of a ‘Jewish homeland’ in historic Palestine throughout much of the 20th century.

When UN Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine passed in 1947, Canada faithfully supported the plan – despite the fact that, at the time, Jews in Palestine comprised only 30% of the population but would be awarded over 55% of the land.  Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, then one of Canada’s senior UN representatives, was instrumental in seeing the partition plan come to fruition.  Contrary to popular belief, Engler argues, Canada’s support for the partition plan was due much less to the influence of a powerful Zionist lobby as to the legacy of Western anti-Semitism.  As Engler writes,
“The way to understand Jewish Zionist lobbying is that it pressed against an almost open door […] the anti-Semitism underlying Canada’s ‘none is too many’ policy towards Jewish refugees explains support for Israel.”
But old-fashioned geopolitics offers a far more precise explanation of Canada’s support for the creation of the state of Israel.  According to the author, in order for Canada to avoid a major diplomatic rift between its two major allies at the time, Britain and the US, securing a deal that would satisfy the interests of both parties was paramount. Following the fallout of World War II, whereupon the US supplanted Britain as the new global hegemon, Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East gradually shifted towards the American sphere of influence. Under the new geopolitical order, Israel would come to represent a vital strategic asset of US imperial interests in the world, essentially serving as a Western colonial outpost in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and much of the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 has done little to change the nature Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. Already deep ideological, economic, and military ties between Canada and Israel have only grown more pronounced over time.  The two countries signed the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) in 1997, Canada’s first ever free trade agreement outside of the Western Hemisphere.  But Canada’s support for Israel also assumes much more nuanced forms, although no less harmful in effect, Engler argues. For example, the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada helped found ‘Canada Park’, an Israeli national park built atop destroyed Palestinian villages in the illegally occupied West Bank.  Canadian aid and charitable funds to Israel have a long history of subsidizing illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank, among various other violations of international law.

Neither should Canada’s reflexive, one-sided support for Israel today be seen in any way as an aberration; instead, Engler insists, it must be understood in the context of a long and consistent historical continuum of Canadian foreign policy interests in the Middle East -- regardless of which political party happens to be in power.  Carefully consulting the historical record, Engler leaves little doubt about the overall continuity of Canada’s support for Israel, from both the so-called ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ of the political spectrum.  Whether it is the Liberal Party of Paul Martin or the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, the book dismantles not only Canada’s ‘peacekeeping myth’ but also the notion of even remote debate or political variety concerning key foreign policy issues in this country.  As Engler writes,
“The trajectory of this country’s foreign policy has been clear: The culmination of six decades of one-sided support, and two years into the Stephen Harper government, Canada was (at least diplomatically) the most pro-Israel country in the world.”
The author explains how under the familiar banner of ‘anti-Semitism’, the historical memory of the Holocaust has been shamefully manipulated by Canadian politicians and Zionist lobby groups alike as a means to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.  Of course, such a clearly harmful and morally bankrupt foreign policy, stubbornly sustained for so long, without logical pretext, cannot survive unopposed forever.  While Engler admits that the broader, grassroots Left has made significant strides in recent years to combat the widespread abuse of anti-Semitism for political gain and the growing ties between Canada and Israel in general, it remains a long and uphill struggle.

Although Engler flatly rejects the baseless charges of anti-Semitism routinely made against vocal critics of Israel such as, for example, the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), he claims that the plight of Palestinians receives much more international attention than do the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, or Tibet, for that matter. “The point of our protest must not just be Palestinian suffering but rather Canadian complicity with that suffering,” Engler argues. He goes on to write,
“By not focusing on Canada’s responsibility for the conflict Palestinian solidarity activists have opened themselves up to attacks regarding their single-minded devotion to Israel’s crimes. To undercut this self-serving argument, which is often an insinuation of anti-Semitism, it is important to make our critique of Canadian foreign policy more explicit.”
Here Engler is uncharacteristically a little careless, unwittingly playing into the hands of the very same political forces whose aims he so skillfully and thoroughly exposes throughout the book.  In reality, Palestine solidarity activists such as those who organize IAW are no more blameworthy for giving specific attention to the Israel/Palestine question than organizers of Congo Awareness Week are for focusing on the DRC or the Canada Haiti Action Network for focusing on Haiti – both of which, it might be added, showcase clear examples of Canadian complicity.  Any activist, among whom I might count Engler, knows that organizers simply cannot do everything.  They are overworked, outstretched, and under-resourced; the fact that events such as those mentioned above even happen at all is an achievement in itself.  So long, I think, as our activism remains rooted in a universal standard of social justice, and we strive wherever possible to highlight common links and build genuine solidarity between various struggles in Canada and abroad, it is possible to take up a given cause without necessarily compromising the integrity of our aims or falling victim to narrow parochialism.

Regarding the growth of Palestine solidarity in Canada in recent years, and the level of international attention surrounding it, Engler fails to acknowledge the degree to which Palestinians themselves have made it possible – both through their own sustained resistance, and practical appeals to international solidarity in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. He argues that it has been largely the belligerence of Israel and, most recently, the brutal military assault on Gaza in 2008/2009 that has caused ordinary Canadians to begin to see Israel for what it is and question Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, resulting in the largest Palestine solidarity demonstrations in this country’s history. But Israel has always been openly belligerent – this is nothing new. In fact, it has been the growth of the Palestine solidarity movement across Canada – led by Palestinians – that has put the Israel/Palestine question on the political agenda like never before, and channeled these large demonstrations into part of an organized campaign (as opposed to short-lived expressions of outrage). This is an unintentional, yet critical oversight – one that puts far too much emphasis on Israel itself as a measure of public opinion.

But make no mistake, Canada is a real actor in this book. While the trajectory of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East has been more or less consistent over the past six decades, Engler is sure to carefully put Canada’s aims in their unique historical context. There is no grand plot or shadow Zionist lobby manipulating Canadian foreign policy from afar (i.e. Walt and Mearsheimer), nor is Canada merely subordinated to the whims of US imperial interests; instead Canada is authentically portrayed as a power in its own right, equipped with its own geopolitical aims and interests. Engler’s mistrust of Canada’s motives in the Middle East is not borne out of cynicism or spite but rather a clear historical pattern of harmful Canadian intervention abroad. No doubt, as someone who admittedly began his career as a writer by studying Canada’s shameful role in Haiti, he is surely well versed in the ugly side of this country’s foreign policy tradition elsewhere in the world.

The scope and breadth of the book is initially quite daunting and even a little overwhelming, leaving virtually no historical fact or detail uncovered, yet avoids becoming at all pedantic or trivial in outlook. Each chapter builds fittingly upon the one prior to create a comprehensive historical narrative; anyone still not convinced after reading this book of Canada’s one-sided support for Israel and the fundamental need to change the nature of this country’s foreign policy may well never be swayed. For such a relatively short book (in total, approximately 150 pages) it is surprising just how much history is covered in this gem of a resource. Written in a simple, lucid style, Engler allows the facts to speak for themselves, yet does not shy away from announcing exactly where he stands.

Canadians can no longer plead ignorance of what is being done abroad in their name. This book not only gives its readers the tools to understand Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid, but in doing so, puts the onus on us to take action in order hold our own government to account. Engler’s proposed solution is as blunt and straightforward as his prose; not wasting words, he writes, “Only when Canadians understand the reality of Israel, when they learn that their government takes the side of Israel despite its glaring human rights violations, will change be possible.”

According to the author, supporting the growing BDS campaign and targeting all Canadian institutions with any political, financial, or military ties to Israel is a good way to begin to take meaningful action. Engler also makes a few recommendations of his own, including: halting all Canadian weapons sales to Israel, revoking the JNF’s charitable status in Canada, and boycotting Chapters/Indigo (which the author himself has done with this very book). Canada’s foreign policy history in the Middle East and its one-sided support for Israel are rife with hypocrisy, and this book is a welcome remedy to it.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Villa Lobos, Suite Populaire Bresilienne; Norbert Kraft, Villa Lobos: Music for Solo Guitar.  Enjoy.

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