Amid all the recent talk about modernizing the Canadian military and re-defining our role on the international scene, Canadian policy makers are missing a vital contribution that we could make right now. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians seems to have baffled peace experts and politicians alike, but there is a made-in-Canada solution that has something significant to offer.
That possible solution is federalism, an influence that has shaped conflict in this country for the past three hundred years. The idea of applying federalism to the mess in the Middle East has been floated before, but in my opinion our unique federal arrangement offers the highest chance of success. Upon close inspection one can see some remarkable similarities between the conflict in Israel and the conflict between the French and the English that has defined much of Canadian history. It is true that the situation in the Middle East is far more violent at the present time, a fact that leads many to believe that a peaceful resolution is mere wishful thinking. But let us not forget that relations between the French and English were equally hostile in the 18th century, and to a lesser degree long after the creation of the Constitutional Act in 1791.
Similarly, just as Israel defeated the Palestinians and their allies on the battlefield in a series of campaigns between 1948 and the present, so too did the British and General Wolfe defeat Montcalme’s French forces at the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The only difference is that where the British decided to accommodate the interests of the minority population, whose language and religion rights were protected in the Quebec Act of 1774, the Israeli government has not. If a lasting peace is to exist in the Middle East, that attitude must change. To be fair, the Israeli government has made significant steps in that direction, in the form of various negotiations with the Palestinian leadership and particularly with the Camp David Accord and the more recent “Roadmap.” However, their persistent, albeit largely understandable desire to obliterate Hamas militants and agents of other Palestine-based terrorist organizations has made progress towards the goal of peace very difficult.
In many ways the Canadian federal state is a model for the rest of the world. In essence, it took two hostile cultures living in close proximity and structured a society that settles disputes politically rather than militarily. While some might point to the October Crisis of 1970, in which members of the FLQ kidnapped British trade official James Cross and Quebec’s Minister of Immigration and Labour Pierre Laporte, as an example of French-English hostilities, for the most part French Canadians have addressed their grievances in the courts and in the House of Commons rather than by arming themselves to the teeth and blowing up buses full of English Canadians. If a particularly talented Canadian diplomat (Lloyd Axworthy certainly comes to mind) were able to export our cultural and social understanding of federalism to the conflict in the Middle East, another Nobel Peace Prize would certainly be in the offing.
There are, however, a few caveats to this proposed solution. It is clear that any proposed solution to the conflict must take a long-term view of the situation. Short-term bumps in the road will be an unavoidable reality, but a lasting peace is not achieved overnight. The schools in both societies must stop preaching hate to their children and begin to educate the students about the virtues of both cultures. The United Nations must take the lead in enforcing the peace and ensuring security, because without a sense of security neither side will be able to honestly and fully commit to a lasting peace. And more than anything else both sides need to be prepared to make sacrifices. The violence that has plagued the region over the past decades, and particularly the past few years, does neither side any good. The Israeli tourism industry, which used to be a key economic engine, has virtually dried up. The Palestinians continue to live in abject poverty and these conditions only serve to create the next generation of suicide bombers. Without economic prosperity, the region has no hope for the future.
These caveats aside, there is still the possibility that the region will someday in the future enjoy the kind of peaceful coexistence that now defines Canada and the relationship between its two dominant cultural and religious groups. Our federal system is one that is driven by compromise and concession, albeit with a great deal of conflict mixed in. But that is a natural component of any relationship between two partners in a close relationship, be they husband and wife or nation-states. The goal is not to eliminate the conflict in the Middle East but to learn how to manage it more effectively so that both sides may be allowed to live their lives as we do. The situation is not intractable, and a Canadian-styled federal arrangement might be just the thing that allows the Israelis and the Palestinians to sort out their conflicts in a peaceful and productive manner. Hell, at this point anything’s worth a try.
Ottawa, June 18 – 885 words.