December 18, 2000
David H. Goldberg
One of the consequences of the Palestinian riots and violence that have transformed the Middle East over the last two months has been renewed interest in United Nations activities related to the conflict.
While not unwelcome, media attention to the annual Israel-bashing ritual that dominates the UN General Assembly agenda at this time every year has led to some serious misconceptions about the role of the United Nations, Canada's approach to the UN and the Jewish community's position regarding UN-related issues. It is time to set the record straight.
It is bitterly ironic that the very body that sanctioned the nascent Jewish state and provided it with international legitimacy in 1947 should represent the principal tool of efforts to isolate and delegitimize that same state only 50-odd years later. Indeed, despite the dramatic changes within the international community over the last half-century, the one constant has been the discriminatory treatment of Israel within the United Nations and its many agencies.
The long-standing Palestinian strategy to engage the UN in its behalf is clear enough. On one level, the UN structure -- which gives the so-called Non-Aligned bloc such disproportionate influence -- represents a most effective instrument in the effort to isolate the sole Middle East democracy within the international community. On a second level, the PLO has repeatedly sought to use the UN in attempts to circumvent the need for direct negotiations with Israel.
Thus, despite the chaos that can be found around the world, issues that are in urgent need of international attention, the UN is virtually consumed by one issue: The Question of Palestine. Parenthetically, this raises a question that, while beyond the scope of this commentary, would benefit from some debate here in Canada. Namely, why is the UN system so dysfunctional and what should Canada's approach be to improving it? The UN has borrowed some of Canada's finest: Maurice Strong, Louise Fréchette and Stephen Lewis to name just a few. But to effect meaningful reform of the UN and to demonstrate moral leadership, Canada must lend its full weight to a campaign to free the United Nations from the shackles of parochial, politicized agendas. Agendas such as those of the world's most accomplished professional "victims," the PLO.
Earlier, I observed that media attention has focused on the annual UN debates concerning the Palestinians and the Arab-Israel dispute. It is important to distinguish those activities from the extraordinary UN resolutions that find their way to the Security Council, like the one that generated such spontaneous condemnation from Canadian Jewry, UN Security Council Resolution 1322.
As the National Post has pointed out in a series of articles and editorials over the last weeks, the Jewish community has historically been concerned and distressed by Canadian support for the majority of resolutions that work their way through the General Assembly. For many years, efforts to effect change in the Canadian position featured prominently on the Canada-Israel Committee agenda. However, with the apparent breakthrough in progress toward peace represented by the Oslo Accords, the Declaration of Principles and the Wye River Agreement, the UN -- including the significance of these resolutions -- receded in importance. The direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization overtook all other considerations and the focus shifted away from the UN and toward efforts to resolve the dispute.
In retrospect, we were all perhaps too naïve in hoping, in believing, that the PLO and the Arab states had come to accept the permanence and legitimacy of a Jewish state in the region. Whatever "spin" one wishes to put on events of the last two months, the reality is that Mr. Arafat, the PLO and the Palestinian grassroots have chosen violence over peace and confrontation over accommodation.
One of the implications of their choice is that with the collapse of meaningful dialogue with Israel, the PLO has successfully shifted the discussion back to the halls of the United Nations and to the template of isolating Israel and entrenching an unbalanced, faulty perception of what is really taking place in the Middle East.
The CIC's quarrel with the government has more to do with Canada's willingness to participate in the charade than in the substance of some of the resolutions brought forward in the UN General Assembly. Just like Canadian support for the grossly one-sided Security Council resolution effectively gave the Palestinians the legitimacy to pursue violence as a tool of diplomacy, so does Canadian support for the litany of anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly liberate the Palestinians from the need to direct their grievances and aspirations to the only address that can accommodate them -- the government of Israel.
In a way, the UN approach to Israel is symptomatic of all that is wrong with that organization. And Canadian unwillingness to confront what is wrong with the UN approach to Israel is indicative of Canada's unwillingness to confront a larger truth: The UN is broken and in desperate need of fixing.
Central to the government's contention that its approach to these issues is correct is the claim that successive Canadian governments have voted along the same lines. All that means, however, is that Canada has repeated the same mistakes over and over again. It is time for Canada to be a cycle breaker and re-examine some of the basic assumptions that shape its Middle East policy.
David H. Goldberg is Director of Research with the Canada-Israel Committee.