Yasser Arafat’s death, announced today but probably hours or even days after the actual event occurred, has yet again opened up the Pandora’s Box of peace in the Middle East. Officials on both sides of the divide, most notably PLO President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, and Israeli President Ariel Sharon, sounded cautious notes of optimism about the possibility of re-engaging in the peace process. But if you listened closely to each of them you could also hear the years of failure and the suspiciousness that it has produced. Suspiciousness and doubt are unlikely catalysts to the creation of a lasting peace.
Mary Lou Finlay of CBC’s “As It Happens” spoke with Ghassan Al-Khatib, the Palestinian Labour Minister, today about Arafat’s death. Mary Lou is usually a fine journalist but today she revealed a prevailing misconception about Arafat’s passing that will surely derail any near-term possibility of peace. She asked Ghassan if Arafat’s death presented an opportunity for the Palestinian people to re-engage in the peace process, a sentiment echoed throughout the media today both in print, on radio, and on television. This is a false assumption and a dangerous one at that, and Al-Khatib rightly pointed this out to her, observing that the Palestinian people fully supported the path that Arafat followed and didn’t see any reason to change it now that he was gone. Both sides are convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the path they have chosen. Great statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin – I would include Arafat in that class – have died before on both sides and little if anything has changed.
I’ll put my cards on the table right now, because this is a debate that requires such honestly. I am an atheist former-protestant. I have a few Jewish friends and a few Arab friends. I have no axe to grind with respect to the conflict in the Middle East, a claim that few commentators these days can make. So while I may not bring the same level of knowledge and familiarity as, say, Norman Spector, who was the former Canadian Ambassador to Israel, I can at least come at the problem with a clear field of vision. That ought to count for something here.
Both sides, as far as I can tell, have a legitimate beef with each other. It is difficult to escape comparisons between the Palestinian people, who were thrown off their land and forced to live on some of the worst tracts of land in the region, and our own First Nations population here in Canada. The Palestinian people endured discrimination and outright racism on the part of the Israeli government for almost half a century now. They have seen their mothers, wives, husbands, and children killed by Israeli troops. They have every right in the world to feel wronged because they have been.
Conversely, I am well aware of the claims made by the Jewish community about the land’s intrinsic holiness, a belief shared by the Palestinian people in their own right. I am equally well aware of the arguments in favour of a Jewish state in the wake of World War II, and I support them. And I am well aware of the trauma that years of suicide bombings have caused to the Israeli national psyche. Israel, like any state, has a right to protect their citizens and they in turn have a right not to have to live in fear of the next bombing.
The remedy that the international community seems to support is a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine perched next door to Israel. This is doomed to failure, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that any independent Palestinian state will be created on some of the worst land available, virtually guaranteeing that any march towards economic parity between the two nations will be slow and painful. It is not dissimilar, as I mentioned earlier, to the reserve system we created for the First Nations communities here in Canada, and I wouldn’t wish the results of that foolish policy on anyone.
Second, the demographic realities of the region do not support such an idea. There are already hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living within Israel today. While they are denied citizenship by the Israeli government, they exist nevertheless and continue to reproduce at a higher rate than the Jewish population. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that in fifty years, the number of Palestinians living in Israel proper may equal or even exceed the number of Jewish people, and that is a recipe for disaster.
The answer, as I cautiously suggested some months ago, is a federal state like our own. As unlikely as it might seem today, they will have to learn to live together. The only other option available is that one group exterminates the other, an outcome that obviously cannot be allowed to take place. Federalism worked in Canada in large part because the majority, the English, saw that they could not suppress the French colonists forever, or even for a while. In the face of a demographic and physical reality they could not ignore, they chose a path that best suited their interests.
The parallels between Canada in 1759 and Israel-Palestine in 2004 are not as far fetched as they might seem at first glance. Yes, the volume of violence that has taken place between the Israeli and Palestinian people is substantially larger than that between the French and English colonists. Yes, the world has changed monumentally between 1759 and 2004. But that is not enough, in my opinion, to set the comparison aside. Both conflicts were between two religiously and culturally opposed people sharing a precariously intimate physical space. The dominant group, for us the English and for the Middle East the Israelis, reproduces at a significantly lower rate. Just as English Canada could not count on the support of the British Empire to sustain its dominant position forever, neither can the Israeli people expect the United States to pour billions of dollars each year into their economy.
Our history, and the history of virtually every conflict between states that share a contested physical space, points to the unfortunate reality that for peace to exist it must be in the best interests of all sides. Peace cannot be imposed or legislated, as much as we might want to do so. For years the international community has tried to impose peace in the Middle East, and regardless of how well intentioned their efforts were or how sophisticated the plans might have been, they were doomed to fail because they ignored this principle reality.
Both sides must act in good faith and in recognition of the fact that their fates as people are tied together. It might be a cruel irony considering the years of violence and suffering that both sides have inflicted upon the other, but it is a reality that should be plainly obvious in light of the repeated failures that have defined the past twenty years in the region. Yasser Arafat’s death will not precipitate peace because both sides do not yet want it, and have not established the conditions in which it can flourish. Until they do they will continue to chafe against reality while hundreds and perhaps thousands more die. If you ask me, federalism, Canada’s strange gift to the world, is the answer.
Ottawa, November 11 – 1238 w.