Negotiation still the best hope

November’s United Nations General Assembly vote to accept Palestine as a nonmember observer state will have ramifications that have yet to be discerned. Canada was among a very small number of UN members that voted against the resolution, consistent with the Stephen Harper government’s staunch backing of Israel. Critics of the government’s policy with regard to the Israel-Palestinian dispute, including Mira Sucharov, writing in the December-January issue of Policy Options, contend that the government has tilted much too far on the side of Israel, thereby undermining its ability to be a constructive player in attempts to resolve the conflict definitively.

Was Canada wrong to be in a small minority in the General Assembly? Certainly it was courageous to back Israel’s position that the UN vote undermines the peace process initiated by the Oslo initiative in 1993 when nearly all the Western democracies either voted affirmatively or abstained. Despite being decidedly in the minority position, arguably Canada did the right thing by not succumbing to international pressure and insisting that the peace process not be sidetracked by flamboyant manoeuvres such as the UN vote. In fact neither Canada nor Israel has abandoned its commitment to a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side, peacefully. Indeed, the new government of Israel that will be established in the aftermath of the January general election is likely to make the resumption of direct negotiations with the Palestinians a clear part of its coalition agreement. By firmly supporting Israel, Canada is not backing away from its own commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict that will be fair to both sides. Rather it reinforces that commitment by stressing that only direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions can produce a lasting agreement and that UN gambits do not advance the effort to achieve genuine peace and termination of the conflict. Instead, a convincing case can be made that they undermine the peace process. So there is a way to solve the problem, but it is not through the UN General Assembly, where an overwhelming majority of states clearly support the Palestinian position.

What about the Western democratic countries that did not follow the United States, Canada and the Czech Republic in opposing the resolution? Assuming that their intentions are noble, people of goodwill might still conclude that their analysis of the situation is faulty. Under the present circumstances, the Palestinians calculate that because they are in a much weaker position than Israel they cannot achieve what they consider to be their minimum goals through direct negotiation. Therefore they look for alternatives such as UN votes. Basically that is a call for an imposed solution by the international community. Such a change of direction represents a repudiation of past solemn Israel-Palestinian agreements to resolve their dispute through direct negotiations. If Canada backs the Israeli position, it is because the government understands that direct negotiations still offer the best hope for a lasting solution to this conflict.

It is also relevant to inquire as to whether Palestinian carping about Canada’s position was disingenuous. With so many countries supporting the UN resolution, why should the Palestinians be so concerned about a mere handful of negative votes, such as Canada’s? The negative votes made no difference to the outcome and had little impact on the political significance. Within Canada it is certainly understandable that supporters of the Palestinian position would be upset with the government’s vote, but governments come and go. Some tilt one way on the Israel-Palestinian issue while others tilt the other way. That is politics, but it is not morality. Those who disagree with the government’s position will oppose it. But they may well find that a successor government will adopt a policy that is more to their liking.

Does the Conservative government’s backing of Israel’s position on the peace process effectively foreclose any options for a settlement? That is hardly the case. Canada is influential only at the margin on these issues; the main external player is the United States. Furthermore, Israel, even with settlement-building, has foreclosed few options. There is a broad consensus behind its govern- ment’s position that it will not return to the 1949 armistice lines, a move that would compromise Israeli security; nor will it agree to return Jerusalem to its 1948-67 divided condition or recognize a ”right of return” that would mean the end of the Jewish state. But beyond that everything is on the table. All of the players have a pretty good idea of what the eventual settlement will look like. The root of the problem, as argued earlier, is that the parties’ positions are mutually exclusive on key aspects.

As for the settlements changing the facts on the ground, Israel demonstrated in 2005 that it could evacuate territory and remove settlements if it chose to do so. Presumably it will do that again if a genuine peace agreement requires such action.

Some will argue that under these circumstances it is unacceptable for a Canadian government to be squarely on one side. But when other Western democracies voted for the UN resolution they were clearly siding with the Palestinians. And those that abstained were thereby allowing the resolution to gain credibility, which under the circumstances did bolster the Palestinian cause.

In the long run, Canada’s position may actually make a lot of sense. If Israel is going to re-enter negotiations with the Palestinians, it would be best if it did not feel isolated and have a sense that the world is ganging up on it. The backing of countries like Canada and the United States will enable the Israelis to approach the give and take that are so essential to successful negotiations with a sense of confidence. Canada’s efforts to prevent Israel from feeling isolated are constructive and should be applauded.