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Our Brothers’ Keeper


17 April 2002

Halifax Chronicle Herald

Even for a region whose history is written largely in the blood of innocents, the recent descent into chaos between Israelis and Palestinians marks a true nadir for the Middle East. For us as Canadians, it is too easy to dismiss the conflict as being beyond redemption, to assume that the Middle East has always been pathologically locked in a jealous embrace with its own destruction, and that the consequences and resolution of the conflict are beyond our horizons.

It is easy, but it is wrong.

Canada not only holds a national interest in Middle East stability, but also shoulders an ethical responsibility as one of the rare countries with the diplomatic capacity to make a sustainable peace in the region possible.

Despite the widespread assumption that intervention by the United States, with its capability to project force at a distance, will pull the Israelis and Palestinians away from the precipice, the entire history of the region suggests otherwise. If force were the elixir of peace in the Middle East, the region would long ago have become the Garden of Eden of Jewish and Muslim theology.

The security of both populations depends purely on their ability to coexist in relative stability

Canada's potential to foster peaceful coexistence in the region flows from the reality that, as a middle power, we have always relied on our ability to persuade rather than compel, to rally nations together in pursuit of shared objectives, rather than menace those that might dissent.

In this vein, if there were a single contribution Canadians can make towards ending the conflict, it would be to break the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians by brokering a tripartite dialogue in Canada between the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Arab League.

Although they are loathe to see their common ground, Israelis and Palestinians implicitly agree that they have lapsed from civil unrest into open warfare in large measure because the PA has not prevented terrorist attacks against Israelis.

The Israelis argue that the PA openly encourages terrorists to attack Israeli civilians, because its leadership is bent on the destruction of the state of Israel and the slaughter of Jews. The Israeli case for military action against the PA rests on their assertion of their legal obligation to maintain their security and protect their population from violence.

The Palestinians argue that the PA can not suppress actions by independent terrorist groups, if the Israelis oppress and provoke the Palestinian population while simultaneously laying siege to the PA's institutions. The Palestinian case for international intervention rests on their assertion that they are a people struggling against conquest by a foreign state.

While the question of whether the PA can not or simply will not restrain terrorist attacks against the Israelis is a profoundly important moral issue, it is, in practical terms, irrelevant. Those in the Israeli and Palestinian camps who merely want vindication for their positions can argue the moral question until heaven and earth pass away; those who want reconciliation must grapple with practical remedies.

If peace in the region rests on the ability of the Israelis and Palestinians to dwell in safety behind their own borders, then negotiations must occur between parties who have the capacity to fulfil commitments to maintain the security of those borders. Whether the PA lacks this capacity because of political malevolence, because of provocation, or because its enemies have intentionally debilitated its leadership, is less important than the simple fact that if it ever possessed this capacity, it does no more.

The only group that might have some standing to act alongside the PA and that could serve as a co-guarantor of the security of a future Israeli-Palestinian border is the Arab League, the alliance of Arab states.

Clearly, many Arab states would recoil from protecting the borders of their old enemy, and some may never yield the ambition of driving the Israelis into the sea. Moreover, many Israelis would prefer to see the PA's seat at the table filled by local warlords from Gaza and the West Bank, rather than have the PA joined by sovereign states holding large standing armies.

However, in this darkest of hours, if peace is to enjoy the faintest glimmer of hope, then all parties will have to take a leap of faith.

The Arab League will have to promise more than just "normal relations" with Israel; it will have to sign a military treaty with Israel to protect the integrity of an Israeli-Palestinian border. The Israelis will have to concede that if they are to have secure borders that are proof against terrorist entry into Israel, then those same borders must be no less resistant against future Israeli ventures into Palestine. The PA will have to develop the capacity to restrain terrorists, and suffer responsibility for any failure to do so.

Finally, a respected third party state must take the political risk of bridging the gulf between all three parties.

Perhaps Canada alone can succeed in the task of brining together these ancient enemies, under our auspices as an internationally respected champion of peace.

It would take imagination, courage, and a willingness to brave the domestic political consequences of possible defeat. However, if Canadians are to continue to merit and enjoy our reputation as honest brokers in the international community, then we must stand prepared to put that reputation to the test.

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