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There's more to Mideast policy than how we vote at the UN

I'm not sure why this country's long overdue votes against blatantly anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations this week are so disturbing to Canadian Palestinians. A firm stand against the predictable litany of UN resolutions could enhance, rather than impede, Canada's ability to be the "honest broker" the Palestinian community wants our government to be. After all, why should support for a Palestinian state dictate blaming Israel for all that's gone wrong?

At the same time, I'm also not sure why the changed votes are lauded by many Canadian Jews as a significant pro-Israel shift in policy. The votes may be reassuring to the Jewish community, but they have little impact on the ground. Right now, to help Israel, as well as Palestinians, Canada could do more to respond to new circumstances in the region. That's going to take more than words, and might generate more controversy.

Next year will be a critical transition year for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza is a key step in the difficult but necessary process of disengagement from territories Israel has occupied since 1967. In turn, Yasser Arafat's death finally paves the way for security and political reforms that he consistently blocked for more than a decade and to which his successors are committed. Taken together, withdrawal from Gaza and improved Palestinian governance can stabilize the situation on the ground and create momentum for more progress. That's where Canada's window of opportunity exists as well.

First, since most Israelis agree with Ariel Sharon that leaving Gaza will make Israel safer and more secure, helping it to leave Gaza the right way is important. But for Israel to fully withdraw from Gaza, it will have to risk vacating the strategic "Philadelphi corridor" that separates Gaza from Egypt, and it will have to provide air and sea space for the Palestinians. Thanks to Canada's smart-technology border-control experience post 9/11, we have something to offer in all these areas and can assist international efforts to train and equip air-traffic, coastal and border-control personnel. Mr. Sharon is now inclined to accept diplomatic and financial assistance in these matters, and both the U.S. and European Union are actively engaged.

Second, despite their official protestations to the contrary, thoughtful Palestinians recognize the linkage between the post-disengagement reality (if, indeed, it takes place) and their own development and reform agenda. Unlike the West Bank, which is dotted with more than 200 Israeli settlements, Gaza provides a contiguous geographic entity that Palestinians will control by the end of next year. What happens there will affect the future of the West Bank, but, with 50-per-cent unemployment, Gaza's residents will take help from any source, including religious fundamentalist organizations. To counter such groups' influence, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has repeatedly encouraged international development investment in the Palestinian economy. With Israel leaving Gaza, officials at CIDA can no longer claim -- as they have in the past -- that aid to the Palestinians perpetuates Israel's occupation. Now's the time to open a Palestine assistance program at our key foreign aid agency.

Third is the controversial matter of Canada's humanitarian support for Gaza's Palestinian refugees. The UN relief agency UNRWA long ago betrayed its mandate and became an advocate of extreme Palestinian positions (claiming a right of return to original homes left behind in 1948) rather than an administrator of international aid. But freezing Canada's $10-million funding to UNRWA, as some Jewish organizations advocate, would have little impact and would likely hamper efforts to encourage more reasonable discussion of resettlement and compensation options.

There are more constructive options. It will take years for the refugee issue to hit the negotiating table; meantime, there's no reason for Palestinians in areas to be evacuated by Israel to continue living in squalor. Canada's successful investment (through UNRWA) in rebuilding the Neirab refugee camp in Syria proves that people's lives can be practically improved without prejudice to future talks or positions of principle. A few million Canadian dollars invested in Palestinian planning in Gaza could go a very long way. Canada also can continue to work with the U.S. and Europe to improve UNRWA's accountability and transparency.

In the past, Canada has moved gingerly on such initiatives. They don't quite fit simple formulas of "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian" positions. Maybe going beyond rhetoric means having a more honest conversation not just abroad but at home as well. Just taking a stand in UN voting isn't enough.

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