Friday, August 28, 2015

FEDERAL ELECTION SERIES: The Conservative Party on Israel-Palestine

This post is the first of four that will analyze the major federal parties' positions and record on Israel-Palestine. Read my introductory piece for the series here. 

Position on Israel-Palestine

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his caucus have repeatedly said that Canada and Israel are “the greatest friends” (those were the words Harper used in his speech to the Israel parliament, the Knesset, in January of 2014). What he actually means, of course, is that his government staunchly supports the status quo in Israel. He supports Israel’s military and settlers continuing their occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. He supports the Israeli military’s full control and blockade of the borders of the Gaza Strip. He supports the Israeli government each time they launch a violent assault on the people of Gaza.

So the question is this: does supporting those Israeli policies make Canada and Israel “the greatest friends”? I would contend not.

Firstly, those policies run counter to international law. International courts and human rights organizations have said that repeatedly for years (I won’t go over all the evidence for that; a simple Google search will give you plenty if you need it). Does a great friend mean supporting illegal activity? I suppose it depends on values. The Harper government has repeatedly claimed in domestic politics that the rule of law is paramount (they have used that language to support mandatory minimums for criminals and the vast expansion of Canada’s prison system). But it would appear that the Harper government’s belief in the rule of law does not extend to its friendship with Israel. 

Secondly, Israel’s belligerence toward Palestinians and continued occupation of their land has resulted in unending violence for peoples of all ethnicities and religions in the area (including Jewish Israelis themselves). As academic and public intellectual Noam Chomsky often says, the best way to reduce violence in the world is to stop participating in it. There is no guarantee that violence will completely disappear if Israel begins to follow international laws. However, it is no secret that the reason for most of the violence is Israel’s refusing to obey those laws. Israel’s law-breaking is the best motivator for violence against them and the best recruitment tool for groups that carry out violent acts against Israel and its citizens. If Israel were to begin following international laws, namely be ending its blockade of Gaza, ending both its settler and military occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and dismantling the wall it has built in the West Bank, what criticism would be left to make of it? If the Israeli government truly thinks human rights groups should be focusing their criticism on Palestinian groups, they would do well to follow the law themselves.

Conclusion? Israel and Canada are not “the greatest friends”, despite what the Prime Minister tells us. We would be much better friends if we articulated the above realities to the Israeli government and to the world. If we want the violence in Israel and Palestine to continue, then the Prime Minister is doing no wrong. However, if we are interested in justice and peace, things need to change in a major way.

Votes in the United Nations General Assembly, while lacking any teeth, do force governments to take a position on Israel-Palestine. The standard two-state solution is voted on every year, and under the Conservative government, Canada voted against the two-state solution for the first time, and continues to do so every year. The 2014 vote (Res. 69/23 for those who want to look it up) was 148 countries in favour, 6 opposed, with 8 abstentions. The countries voting against were Canada, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and the United States. Harper’s Conservatives also opposed Palestine’sbid for statehood in the UN General Assembly in November 2012 (we were 1 of 9 countries to vote against it). While Canada’s official position is still that there should be a Palestinian state, the government has not upheld that position when it comes to voting on it in the UN.

Willingness to discuss the issue

As far as willingness to discuss the issue of Palestine in public, the Conservatives are actually arguably the most open about it. Although their position on the issue of Israel-Palestine is terrible, they seem to be willing to discuss that position at any time. The Prime Minister speaks about it quite regularly and is willing to talk at length about it. It is a positive that anyone who considers the question of Israel-Palestine when they cast their ballot knows where the Conservatives stand. Clearly those who value justice and peace will conclude that the country needs a change in government.

Diversity within the caucus

Due to the leader-dominated nature of politics today, it is difficult on any issue to see the diversity of opinions within a caucus. That diversity would mainly be seen within caucus meetings, where it is rarely, if ever, made public. That said, there is some evidence of diversity that can be seen within the Conservative caucus on this issue. Alberta Conservative MP Ted Menzies (who was the last remaining MP who had been part of the PC side of the Reform-PC merger that created the Conservative Party of Canada), was the sole Conservative MP who sat on the little-known Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group (the other Conservative member of the group was a Senator). There are many such associations (they are listed on Parliament's website here) that exist for the purpose of "supporting ongoing parliamentary relations with the identified country or in providing an opportunity for parliamentarians interested in a specific international cause to engage with colleagues with a similar interest."

I have obtained a relatively recent list of the members of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group, and there are two Conservative officials listed as members: Lois Brown, MP for Newmarket-Aurora (Ontario), and Senator Raynell Andreychuk (Saskatchewan). Senator Andreychuk was appointed by Prime Minister Mulroney and is notably the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Beyond their membership in this group, I do not have any additional information on MP Brown or Senator Andreychuk's positions on Israel-Palestine. But given the absence of any other information on Conservatives showing any support for Palestinians, their membership in the group alone is notable.

I do my best to see any sign of a Conservative even remotely sympathetic to Palestine, and the only thing I have seen outside of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group was MP Brad Butt of Mississauga-Streetsville attending a charity BBQ event in his riding hosted by a group called Palestine House. It didn't seem like a significant thing at the time, but I documented it when he tweeted about his attendance at the event. It turned out that last month Ezra Levant's outfit The Rebel Media (using the term "media" very loosely) put out a blog about how outrageous it was that Thomas Mulcair met with representatives of Palestine House. While I'm not convinced Palestine House is doing anything wrong, Levant I suppose should be equally outraged at the Conservatives for having one of their MPs support this organization. The event is documented on Mr. Butt's listing of community events on his website here and the tweet is here.

Seeing the diversity within a caucus, again, is not something that is generally accessible to the public and is very reliant on these sorts of small bits of information. If anyone has any further information to share, I would be happy to help get it out into the open.


To sum up, the Conservative Party has been terrible on every aspect of policy with regard to Israel-Palestine. Although a tiny bit of diversity is apparent within the caucus, nearly every time I see or hear a Conservative MP talking about Israel-Palestine, it is in defense of the status quo in Israel and nearly always ignores the human rights of Palestinians. I could locate examples, but I think they're easy enough for anyone with a computer to find. While the other parties are far from perfect on the issue of Israel-Palestine (more on that in the forthcoming parts of this blog series), the Conservative Party is by far the worst choice for Canadians wanting justice and peace in Israel-Palestine.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

FEDERAL ELECTION SERIES: Where do the parties stand on justice and peace in Israel-Palestine?

With a federal election campaign now underway in Canada, it is a good time to take stock of where the country is at in relation to the question of Palestine. I find that coverage of that issue as it relates to electoral politics is spotty at best and is usually related to gaffes and other events that can be used by one political party (or its supporters) to make another look bad. In addition, there is some criticism of all of the parties coming out of civil society groups. So given the scarcity of this sort of coverage, I will be publishing a series of blog posts to help fill the void in a small way. I will go through each of the political parties and do a little analysis of where they are at with regard to Palestine. I will look at three things for each party: their position on the Israel-Palestine issue, their willingness to discuss it in public (which has become a major issue in some parties), and the diversity of opinions within their caucus. I will begin the series with a few broad thoughts and comments related to Israel-Palestine in Canadian electoral politics. 

The first is that it is a very positive development that for the first time that I’m aware of in Canada’s history, the leaders of the major political parties will have a public debate focused solely on foreign affairs. It will take place on September 28th. I am very hopeful that Israel-Palestine will be the focus of at least one question that evening. Be sure to tune in.

Secondly, advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) is releasing a series of materials throughout the election campaign related to where the parties stand on Middle East issues. So far they have released 3 of 15 analyses. Not all of them will be related to Israel-Palestine (the group focuses on other areas of the Middle East as well), but one of the ones already released is on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement related to Israel-Palestine. All of the analyses are being posted here.

Thirdly, I wanted to point out the existence of a little-known group within Parliament called the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group. A Google search of the group brings up very little, but it is a multi-party group made up of MPs that is chaired by NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. I wanted to put the word out about it in case anyone reading has access to a list of the group’s membership. This group is likely the only official one made up of MPs getting together to discuss issues related to Palestine. I first learned of its existence 5 years ago when NDP MP Libby Davies gave a talk at a federal NDP convention on a human rights delegation she was part of that travelled to the West Bank and Gaza. I found an article on the trip here.

Not mentioned in the article is that a Conservative Senator (I don’t recall which one) was part of the trip as well, although he did not attend the Gaza portion of the trip. At the time there were two Conservatives in the group, the other being Alberta Conservative MP Ted Menzies, who is now retired.

Lastly, I just want to lay out a brief framework for how I will analyze each of the parties related to the question of Israel-Palestine. I will look generally at the parties’ positions on a just and peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I will look at statements the leaders have made and also positions they have taken on questions that reach UN votes, specifically related to the annual UN General Assembly vote on the Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question and the November 2012 vote on Palestinian statehood. Since, in my view, one of the issues with Israel-Palestine as it relates to Canadian politics, is a reluctance or resistance to public discussion of the topic, I will look at that issue for each party. And since it’s an issue that isn’t talked about much publicly, I will look at the diversity of opinions within each caucus and slate of candidates with regard to Israel-Palestine. That part is difficult to get much information on, but over the years I have noticed some things worth commenting on.

So stay tuned! I’ve actually written drafts already for pieces on the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, and a brief one on the Greens, so despite the sparseness of my blogs in the past, I promise these ones will actually happen and in a timely manner. I hope they help to stimulate more discussion on a topic that, in my view, doesn’t receive enough attention in Canadian electoral politics.