Yesterday was a grand opportunity for our federal government to set out its views on the Middle East conflict. Both Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his Foreign Minister, Bill Graham, made major speeches on the occasion of a state visit by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Unfortunately, Messrs. Chretien and Graham performed a dubious good cop-bad cop routine, with resounding support for Israel from the former, and a deceptive piece of moral equivalence from the latter. The government may think this allows it to have its diplomatic cake and eat it, too, but in truth it makes Canada seem either confused or cynical.
Mr. Chretien's speech was brief, but was long enough to make all the necessary points. The Prime Minister affirmed Israel's right "to secure borders and to live in peace with her neighbours." He also spoke of the terror in which Israeli citizens live -- "where allowing your children to go to a pizza parlour or a disco or just to play in the park can be a choice between life and death" -- and called on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to take "effective action against extremist groups who continue to use the territory under his authority for safe harbour." Yet these fine words carried the air of damage control -- as just hours before, Mr. Graham had delivered a speech in which he both expressed support for an impossible peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia, and suggested a false moral similitude between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism. It was a performance that rightfully elicited catcalls from the crowd, and which calls for debunking here.
First, let us examine the Saudi proposal, which Mr. Graham says "deserves serious consideration." In fact, it is not a serious peace plan, but an attempt by Crown Prince Abdullah to rehabilitate his country's terror-tarnished image and put Israel on the defensive diplomatically. According to the plan, which Prince Abdullah says he may promote at this month's Arab League meeting in Beirut, Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for normal relations with all Arab nations. As Prince Abdullah knows well, the suggestion that Arab nations would fulfill their end of this bargain is absurd.
For proof of this, look back just one year to the 2001 Arab Summit in Jordan, at which Iraq's delegate ended his speech with the words, "May God damn the Jews!" Bashar Assad, President of Syria, told delegates that Israel is "even more racist than the Nazis." Now consider that Prince Abdullah's plan would have Israel building embassies in Damascus and Baghdad. This is not even remotely likely, and it is naive and unproductive for the Canadian government to suggest it is.
Mr. Graham's delusions about the Saudi plan -- based on an overly benign assessment of Arab attitudes -- perhaps explain why the Foreign Minister yesterday also doled out blame for the ongoing violence to both the Israelis and Palestinians. Although he urged Mr. Arafat to prosecute Palestinians responsible for terrorist attacks, he also said that Canada must question "certain practices which we do not believe ultimately contribute to peace. Innocent civilian casualties, for example, no matter what their background or religion, are not justifiable and ultimately compromise Israel's image as a vital and compassionate nation." Given that Israel cannot possibly be compromised as a vital and compassionate nation by Israeli deaths, Mr. Graham is clearly referring here to Palestinian and Muslim deaths -- and his use of the word "practices" makes it clear he is suggesting Israel's army excessively endangers innocent Palestinian civilians. This is false.
Moreover, what Canada's Foreign Minister did not say, but should have, is that there are two types of civilian casualties -- (a) those killed deliberately, by suicide bombers for instance; and (b) those killed accidentally by soldiers hunting terrorists. By conflating the two categories under a broad denunciation of "civilian casualties," Mr. Graham falsely blurs the moral distinction between terrorism and counterterrorism.
In fact, for all the hand-wringing heard about the complexity of the Middle East violence, the moral dynamic at play is actually quite plain. While both sides characterize their strikes as retaliatory, only one side is being honest. Everyone knows there would be no more Israeli missile strikes and armoured incursions if the terrorist attacks halted. But the reverse is clearly false: Palestinian leaders openly admit they will keep blowing things up until they get all they want. Witness Mr. Arafat himself, and his recent call for "a million martyrs" to help wrest Jerusalem from the Jews.
The Canadian and European Union view that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are fundamentally well-intentioned actors locked against their will in a destructive cycle is wrong. Israel wants to live in peace; its enemies want it to be destroyed. As for Mr. Arafat, he does not want 90% of the West Bank and Gaza, or 95% or even 100%. What he and many other Palestinians seek is a regional war that will destroy Israel. Mr. Graham and other Western politicians should stop making specious rhetorical concessions to terrorism. The damage he did was not undone by the fulsome support for Israel expressed by the PM a few hours later.
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