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December 5, 2011

Timely Conference by National Council on Canada Arab Relations

The Canadian Charger

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As the guest speaker at the convention of the National Council on Canada Arab Relations held recently in Gatineau, Quebec, Clovis Maksoud electrified the room with his declaration that "as long as Palestine does not enjoy its rights, the whole Arab Spring will not be fulfilled."

Those rights include freedom from Israeli settlements, at least partial satisfaction of the right of return, Palestinian statehood, and the division of Jerusalem.

Maksoud is a Professor of International Politics and Director of the American University’s Center for the Global South, in Washington.  His long career includes impressive accomplishments in academia, diplomacy for the Arab League, and journalism.

Maksoud noted that Israel has never admitted that it is an occupier, and has flouted the Geneva Convention, which states that an occupier cannot alter the identity of occupied territory.  Washington and Canada punish Palestine for seeking UN recognition, but there is no punishment of Israel, which will not even define its status in the West Bank.  In the West Bank, he noted, the settlers have 80% of the water from aquifers, leaving just 20% for the Palestinians.

He commented on the Obama government’s insistence that the treaty between Egypt and Israel be maintained.  Obama’s call for a freeze on settlements carries a hidden message: it recognizes their presence.  Israel is acting not as an occupier but as a conqueror.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestinians return to the negotiating table. The negotiating has, Maksoud observed, been going on for 20 years, with Israel continuing to seize more and more land during that time.  The Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, he charged, encapsulates the collective humiliation of Arabs and Arab countries.

Maksoud took this occasion to praise Canada’s policy of multiculturalism and Lester Pearson’s role in the Middle East.  He said that Canada was “a persuading factor” in putting the brakes on what was left of imperialism and hegemony in the 1950's and 1960's and promoting the model of peacekeeping. “When the U.S. exceeded its power, Canada subtly exercised its influence to calm it down. Canada was the conscience of the West.”

Multiculturalism, he said, is an important Canadian principle.  It makes it possible to be a good Canadian and a good Arab at the same time.  It is now time, he argued, for Arab-Canadians to end their divisions and deal with treatment of the Palestinians as a domestic Canadian issue, to demand that Canada return to being a brake on policies that punish Palestinians for seeking their rightful place.  They must vigorously oppose Canada’s withholding of funds for UNESCO because of the adherence of Palestine, for instance.

Elsewhere in the conference, CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed spoke on the eruption of the Arab Spring.  She identified the underlying cause being a bunch of out-of-touch autocracies ruling over unemployed and underemployed, well-educated young men with no prospects.  The self-immolation of a young vegetable seller protesting his dispossession led to the end of the Tunisian dictatorship, and that development was the spark that set off the Arab Spring.  Young people saw that autocracy could be overturned.

There were, she said, hints as to what was to come in Lebanon and Iran.  After the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Christian and Muslim youths joined together to drive out the Syrian puppet government and the Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon.  In Iran, youthful demonstrators lost the post-election battle with the government, but they showed the power of social media in telling their story to the world.  Youth in the Arab Spring made full use of this Iranian lesson. 

While there is much more that could be reported about this conference, let us end with just two. 

Zainab Amery, a Ph.D. candidate at Carleton University, explained why the Arab Diaspora in Canada has failed to develop the same kind of rich institutional structure here that other groups, such as the Italians, have.  The Arabs, especially the Lebanese, have instead sent money back home for their families.

Finally, a word about politicians.  NDP MP Paul Dewar was slated to come.  He pulled out.  The only official response to invitations was from Bob Rae, who sent a nondescript letter of greeting. The one politician who did show up was Martha Hall Findlay, a defeated MP from the Toronto area.  “I have a problem with politicians afraid of debate,” she told the Charger.

She pinpointed why it is so difficult for Arab groups to get through to politicians.  “They are afraid of being linked to extremism.”  She told people that approaches need to be moderate.  When it was pointed out that other kinds of extremists, as illustrated by the Coalition to Combat Antisemitism’s inclusion of radical Israeli settlers, manage to get a respectful hearing, she re-emphasized her point.  Essentially, the fear is of being linked to Arab and Muslim extremists.

Political realism, in effect, is not the same as rationality or fairness.

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