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March 21, 2014

A strange debate

Reuel S. Amdur

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"Israel and Palestine, a Path to Peace." That was the topic for discussion at the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council on March 6. There were three presenters, Michael Bell, a former ambassador to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and Thomas Woodley, President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). It was a strange discussion.

While Woodley addressed a variety of important issues, Fogel engaged in what can only be described as an extended rendition of Kumbaya, acknowledging what he had learned from various distinguished guests such as Joe Clark who were present.  Just about the only substantive comment that he made was that the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement is wrong-headed because what is needed are things that bring Jews and Palestinians together.  He feels that the Palestinians are demanding all or nothing, “leaving them in desperation rather than personal dignity,” while what is needed is to make them “stockholders in peace.”

Woodley, who said he was hopeful about the situation, focused on the imbalance between the two sides.  They are negotiating over things “that already belong to the Palestinians.”  What is required is a rebalancing to compensate for Israel’s advantage, something that falls to the Americans who have taken the role of mediator.  The thing that is lacking is full rights for all in a common legal system.  He called for a right of return for refugees, with the option of choosing compensation.  Along with that, there should be recognition by Israel of the great wrong done them in throwing them out of their homes in the Nakba, the Israeli war of independence. 

He listed a variety of Palestinian complaints, including the arbitrary confiscation of Palestinian land and home demolitions (27,000 since 1967) along with a very high rate of rejection of Palestinian applications for new construction.  He observed that while the talks are going on Israel continues to build in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  At a talk in Ottawa several years ago, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy charged that Israel always uses the occasions of negotiation for increasing the construction of settlements.

Woodley pointed to the presence of five million Palestinians in exile.  He noted that Israel’s control in the West Bank has the consequence of preventing farmers from getting to their farms and of students getting to school.  Finally, he noted that no Palestinian leader could recognize Israel as a Jewish state and survive.  It would mean “permanent second-class status” and abandonment of the refugees.  It is unclear why Woodley is optimistic.

Bell held that there needs to be a solution for two nations experiencing security and fulfillment.  He criticized the mutual blame game—“It’s the other guy’s fault.”  A one-state solution, he argued, is not feasible because of the friction between the two sides: who would be in control?  The need is for accommodation, recognizing the needs of the other.  But nothing, he held, will work without an Israeli-Palestinian resolution of the status of Jerusalem.  With regard to Operation Cast Lead, he said that no country could tolerate being on the receiving end of rockets.  

As for Canada, he observed that it has abandoned its traditional role and is now tilting heavily in the direction of Israel.  As for Mahmoud Abbas, he is the best Arab leader available.  The West Bank has “a qualified measure of freedom,” certainly in comparison with Iraq, Syria, “or even Jordan”.  The challenge is how to make Palestine out of available land, if we don’t want an Apartheid state. 

One audience member criticized the BDS movement in academia, and Woodley responded that Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East favors institutional boycotts, not a boycott of individuals.  Thus, the target might be a university, not a professor.

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