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Libby Davies and the NDP: Jack Layton's leadership test

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Today, Tuesday June 15, is a day the NDP‘s Jack Layton will face a leadership test. He is poised to make a decision to punish one of his MPs and it could stain his leadership for a long time to come.

As reported yesterday in the Vancouver Sun and other Canwest papers the party is in a state of near hysteria over what should have been a minor flap. But when the question of Israel and the Palestinians is involved, nothing is simple. The pro-Israel lobby and its friends are masters of taking advantage of any situation to promote their cause and vilify Israel's critics. And it doesn't matter if the victim is an icon of progressive politics.

In this case Vancouver East MP Libby Davies got bushwacked by a pro-Israel activist posing as a neutral -- if not pro-Palestinian -- blogger. After a rally for the Palestinians criticizing Israel's deadly assault on the aid flotilla, a man approached Libby asking for an interview. As she always does, because she never hides her views, she complied. He immediately set her up with what he called a "background question." He asked when the occupation began, 1948 or 1967.

Libby hesitated then said 1948. She made the point that the date was not important -- that whatever the date the occupation was the longest in the world -- and far too long.

The next day the interview appeared on YouTube. But in 24 hours it had gone nowhere -- just 28 views. Then the most vociferous supporter of Israel in the NDP caucus, Thomas Mulcair, got wind of it and it escalated out of control. He went on a relentless campaign to punish Libby. The spin he helped create was that if Libby believed the occupation began in 1948 then she, ipso facto, believes that Israel has no right to exist. Libby has always gone to great lengths to make it clear that she supports Israel's right to exist and the two-state solution endorsed by the NDP. But suddenly Jack Layton was in full-panic mode. He apologized to the Israeli ambassador. He hung Libby out to dry. He forced her to issue a public apology.

Apology? For what?

Some have criticized Libby's statement as evidence that she does not know the history of the occupation which most mainstream commentators date from 1967 -- when Israel militarily occupied the West bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. But Libby's problem was not that she didn't know enough. She knew too much.

It is part of the unquestioned history of Israel that during the time leading up to its formal establishment by UN resolution 181 there was a massive, forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from the land designated for the Jewish state. The resolution explicitly banned any such expulsion. The Arab population of that land had equal rights to it.

So when did the occupation begin? Certainly the Arab families who were forced from their homes, farms and villages by Israeli terrorist groups like the Irgun believe their land was occupied. They still do. That is the basis for their demand of the Right of Return.

In any case Libby's point in the interview was the correct one: whenever you date the occupation one thing is clear. It is a grotesque violation of international law, human rights and numerous UN resolutions which Israel, with the carte blanche support of the US and Canada, contemptuously ignores.

Here's where the question of leadership comes in. Jack Layton has said virtually nothing about the hideous blockade of Gaza -- what commentators call an outdoor prison. Why? Because he is does not, apparently, have the political courage to take an independent stand on Canadian foreign policy. He said virtually nothing when eleven aid activists were murdered (some of them executed at close range or shot in the back) by Israeli commandos.

But suddenly he is fully engaged in the issue because one of his most trusted and ethical MPs got suckered into making a controversial statement.

Mr Layton needs to rethink which is more important -- the vicious blockade of Gaza, and the collective punishment of 1.5 million people. Or a careless remark by an MP admired across the country for her courage and openness.

The irony is that Libby is being punished for doing exactly what Jack Layton should be doing: defending the human rights of a people suffering under the oppression of an Apartheid regime.

No one said leadership is easy. Jack Layton should back off, tell Thomas Mulcair to quit exposing the party to public ridicule, and maybe consider taking a stand, with Libby, on behalf of the Palestinians of Gaza. He might be pleasantly surprised at the response of Canadians.

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