Principle or Prejudice? Canada’s Misguided Denial of Palestinian Statehood

Prime Minister Harper tweeted on Saturday that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had called to thank him for Canada’s “friendship and principled position this week at the UN”.  The friendship may be obvious, but one searches in vain for the principle at stake that compelled Canada to vote against non-member observer state status for Palestine. It cannot be found in international law, because Palestine clearly meets the test for statehood in international law, notwithstanding outstanding disputes about its final borders. Nor can any principle arise regarding adherence to Canadian precedent: we recognized the statehood of both South Sudan and Kosovo in recent years, although both had ongoing border disputes.

Foreign Minister Baird insisted that granting Palestine observer state status was “an impediment to peace” and an “end run” around the peace negotiations. Perhaps, therefore, the principle at issue is support for the peace process? Leaving aside the obvious point that at the moment there is no peace process, it is hard to see how upgrading Palestine’s status is the obstacle Baird claims. The United Nations, Canada, and Israel are all committed to a two-state solution. The UN vote is simply a symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood. It doesn’t preclude ongoing talks regarding the borders or Jerusalem, nor pre-judge their outcome (other than that there will be a Palestinian state). Indeed, the fact that the UN vote is not an “impediment” to an eventual two-state solution—and may even be a catalyst for such an outcome—is confirmed by the fact that it was opposed by Hamas and other Palestinian factions which have not (unlike President Abbas) accepted Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This fact is confirmed too by support within Israel for the UN vote, including by former Prime Minister Ehmud Olmert.

‘Canadian policy towards Palestine is now so evidently biased that our views, and any diplomacy we might pursue in the matter, are hopelessly compromised.’

Further, if Canada’s position is to decry all obstacles to the resumption of peace negotiations, why are Harper and Baird virtually silent on continued (and illegal) Israeli settlement expansion? This is the reason talks broke off. The Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu enforces a complete freeze on new settlement construction. That’s hardly an unreasonable position; it was shared by the U.S. when Obama tried to re-start talks in 2009-10.

In his vain search for justification, Foreign Minister Baird has argued that the Palestinians have acted unilaterally by seeking a UN vote in recognition of their statehood. But how can it possibly be said that requesting a vote in the world’s most multilateral institution is a “unilateral step”, in Baird’s words? The very fact that over 188 states voted (138 in favour) is an indication of a major multilateral deliberation. And it can hardly be unilateral vis-à-vis the Israeli Government. A declaration of Palestinian statehood is not an act of secession. Palestine did not require Israel’s permission to declare its statehood when it did so decades ago. Further, the fact that the Palestinian Authority accepts that this statehood will be achieved in line with UN resolutions recognizing Israel’s pre-1967 borders suggests that UN endorsement of Palestinian statehood is no threat to Israel. If the agreement of hostile and/or neighbouring states were always required to achieve statehood, then the UN would have far fewer members. Israel’s own declaration of independent statehood over six decades ago was denounced by Arab states, but that doesn’t make it any less legitimate.

So what is the principle at stake? Neither international law, nor Canadian precedent, nor a preference for peace talks offers any reasonable justification. Indeed, the only principle at stake appears to be a misplaced loyalty: to support the Netanyahu Government regardless of the merits of the case. Foreign Minister Baird was keen to maximize the impact of Canadian support for the Israeli Government position. He flew to New York to represent Canada in the UN vote, though the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Then, with Palestine duly admitted as an observer state, Baird expressed his displeasure by recalling Canada’s UN Ambassadors in New York and Geneva to Ottawa for “urgent consultations”.

There are many pressing issues on the UN’s agenda: for instance, the worsening violence in the DRC that has displaced hundreds of thousands in the east of the country; and the pressing need to overcome, or get around, Russian and Chinese opposition to a Security Council resolution that addresses the violence in Syria. Why is Baird spurred to action by a purely symbolic UN General Assembly vote, and why this farcical recalling of ambassadors for consultations that can lead nowhere? What policy option might emerge that could have any impact on the peace process we claim to be so concerned about? Canadian policy towards Palestine is now so evidently biased that our views, and any diplomacy we might pursue in the matter, are hopelessly compromised. No one is interested in what we might say; they would rather hear it direct from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. For on virtually every important matter, his view is Canada’s view. Alone among our allies, Canada did not object clearly and publicly to Netanyahu’s decision in the wake of the UN vote to proceed with the illegal construction of 3,000 more housing units in the occupied West Bank; even the U.S., Israel’s strongest ally, forcefully condemned this action.

Certainly the UN vote has angered the Israeli Government. That being predictable (and not helpful if the goal is to resume talks), a Canadian abstention in the vote might have been understandable. To vote against Palestinian statehood, and to pursue this position with so much enthusiasm and so little reasoned justification, however, is a sign of prejudice, not principle.

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