Harper's Israel speech: If peace were that simple, we'd be there already

Michael Petrou on the Prime Minister's remarks

Ariel Schalit/AP

One can draw several conclusions from Ahmed Tibi’s outbursts during Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s address to the Israeli Knesset.

Tibi is an Israeli-Arab parliamentarian, representing the Arab Movement for Renewal party. He heckled Stephen Harper during his speech, at one point admonishing Harper not to misrepresent boycott campaigns against Israel. “We want to boycott settlements,” he shouted.

(While the movement is not monolithic, robust campaigns do target Israel beyond its West Bank settlements.)

Tibi also pointed to the government side of the assembly and shouted: “That’s where Likud sits,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party. “You should sit there.”

First, it must be said that Tibi’s presence in Israel’s Knesset is a testament to the country’s strong democracy. It’s not a perfect one: Tibi has a voice in the parliament that governs his life because he is an Israeli citizen. Palestinians living in the West Bank, also ultimately under Israeli government control, do not.

And Tibi’s presence in the Knesset is not uniformly welcomed. Several Israeli MKs object to Tibi’s membership because he will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said this recognition a prerequisite for peace. I’m not sure how much Palestinian affirmation of the Jewish nature of their state really means to most Israelis, or to Netanyahu for that matter. But it means a lot to Palestinians. By demanding Palestinians do something he knows they won’t, Netanyahu can frustrate progress toward Palestinian statehood and blame the Palestinians.

And, frankly, I don’t see the demand as a reasonable one. Israel is not exclusively a Jewish state. About one fifth of its population are Christians or Muslims. Defining the country as Jewish implies those who are not Jewish are lesser citizens. Then Jewish nationalist MKs complain about the loyalty of these Arabs, and around and around we go.

Back to Tibi’s comments today. I think Harper deserved a politer reception than he got. But Tibi’s accusation that Harper should have been sitting with Likud members was metaphorically correct.

Israel’s democracy is vibrant. Some of the most intelligence criticism of Israel comes from its own parliamentarians and media. Harper’s speech reflected little of this nuance. He spoke to, and for, Likud and similarly-minded Israelis.

On Palestinian statehood, he described a fictional scenario in which the main impediment to the birth of such a state is the refusal of Palestinians to “make peace with Israel.” When that happens, he said, Canada would be right behind Israel in welcoming Palestine as a new member of the United Nations.

If the roadmap to peace were that simple, we’d be there already. We’re not. There’s plenty of blame to go around, including heaps of it among the Palestinians, but portraying Israel’s continued occupation (not that Harper would use that term) of the West Bank as a primarily the fault of the Palestinians is inaccurate.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Israel’s right to exist and wants a Palestinian state that lives peacefully beside it. He has also done much to curb terror attacks against Israel from the West Bank..

Many, perhaps most, Israelis want the same thing. But there are also members of the current Israeli government, including its economy minister Naftali Bennett, who reject the idea of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state. A declaration from Ahmed Tibi that he accepts Israel as a Jewish state isn’t going to reverse Bennett’s stand on this.

Change, in other words, must come from Israel as well. Harper’s speech didn’t reflect that reality. He placed blame on the comparatively weaker Palestinians and effectively absolved Israel. No wonder Netanyahu is so pleased he’s come.

Harper also went on a bit of an odd tangent regarding Iran. While I think diplomacy must be given a fair chance to succeed in ending the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program — the alternatives, lest we forget, are military ones — I do think a firm stand on Iran is defensible, especially regarding the horrendous way the regime in Tehran treats its own citizens.

But Harper segued to Iran by way of Palestine.

A Palestinian state, he says, will come when “regimes that bankroll terrorism realize that the path to peace is accommodation, not violence.”

Harper was talking about Iran. Iran used to be a major backer of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the Gaza Strip and has launched many terror attacks (and thousands of rockets) at Israel.

The Palestinian Authority, in cooperation with Israel, has largely suppressed Hamas in the West Bank. Israel quite understandably fears this situation might change. A Hamas-controlled West Bank would be a security nightmare for Israel, putting Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport within Hamas rocket range.

Iran, however, is no longer a primary sponsor of Hamas. The militant group broke with Tehran over the latter’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hamas now receives much of its funding from Qatar, which enjoys good relations with Canada (and functional relations with Israel).

The Middle East is a complicated place, and I’m not going to try unraveling the webs of cooperation and conflict that run through it here. My point is only that blaming Iran for lack of progress toward a Palestinian state is misleading. Much of Harper’s speech was.

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