A couple of weeks ago I had a long chat with an Israeli official. It was one of those off-the-record deals, so I can’t identify him. But I can say that he is senior, politically powerful, and decidedly on the right of Israel’s political spectrum.
The official took an unwaveringly hard line on Iran. He was much more positive about Israel’s relations with some of its Arab neighbours who make up what he described as “the moderate Sunni camp.”
“Sunni countries like the Egyptian regime or the Jordanian regime, and other Gulf states, they’re not radical. There are certain reservations about Saudi Arabia, of course,” he said. “We have known strategic relations based on common interests,” he continued, speaking of Jordan and Egypt. Asked about relations with countries in the Gulf, he said, “Let’s leave that alone,” which I’m going to take as a yes.
Admittedly, Israel’s relations with its neighbours centre on concerns over its own security, rather than the state of democracy and human rights in those countries. But the official still worked from a starting assumption that Israel is not surrounded by an unchanging sea of mouth-breathing extremists.
What, then, are we to make of Canadian Stephen Harper’s latest proclamation of Canada’s undying affection for Israel?
Speaking last night at the Jewish National Foundation’s annual Negev Dinner, and gushing about a bird sanctuary that was to be named in his honour, Harper noted the preserve would be “in the homeland of the Jewish people, and that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness, the state of Israel.”
A moment later, but before breaking into song, Harper announced he would shortly be making his first ever trip to Israel. He’ll also be tacking on visits to Jordan and the West Bank, where I’m sure that “region of darkness” quip will be well received.
Before he gets to Jordan, though, I hope Harper takes a good look around the state he so unabashedly praises. Israeli politicians like to point out how small Israel is, how close the West Bank juts toward the Mediterranean Sea, the short distance a rocket from Palestinian territory would need to fly before hitting Ben Gurion Airport. This can most easily be appreciated from the air.
George W. Bush, when he was a governor and had not yet become president, had this to say after his first trip to Israel in 1998: “It was important for our Israeli host to remind our delegation of how really small it was, so I got on a helicopter one day and flew with the foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, to see first hand how small the population was between, what has been over the course of history, enemy lines and population centers.”
Those helicopter tours can make different impressions, though. Here’s Michael Ignatieff in 2002, before he launched his political career and stopped speaking so frankly:
“When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.”
Comparisons to apartheid South Africa are toxic to most Israelis. And yet former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also made one in 2007 while urging the necessity of a two-state solution:
“If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.”
I bring up Olmert’s comments, and those of the unnamed Israeli official, to point out that within Israel, and not only on its leftist fringe, there is a recognition that Israel’s security and prosperity require it to find points of light in the darkness around it, and that its own democracy is flawed and endangered by its continued occupation of Palestinians who don’t have the democratic right to shape the Israeli government that controls them.
“We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the Middle East,” Harper said last night.
That’s a stretch. Israel deserves to survive and thrive because of what it is and what it has accomplished, not because Canada somehow depends on it.
But Israel’s democracy is threatened by its continued occupation of the West Bank. It can’t claim to be fully democratic when West Bank Palestinians can’t vote in Israeli elections. And enfranchising everyone within the territory it controls would radically dilute the Jewish nature of the state. The status quo, in other words, can’t hold.
Many Israelis understand this. I don’t think Harper does. If he changes his mind, perhaps on a helicopter tour over the West Bank, I hope he tells his hosts. A real friend would.