Canada has role to play in Mideast

Speaking on CBC Radio's Sunday Edition on the weekend, an Israeli commentator described the situation Israel faces as "agonizing."

This seems apt, given the horrific recent developments in Gaza. But Yossi Klein Halevi wasn't referring to the results of Israel's military assault - including Red Cross reports of Palestinian children found starving next to the corpses of their mothers. Rather, he was referring to the harsh criticism Israel is receiving from around the world.

For Halevi, the issue boils down to terrorism. With Hamas rockets falling on Israel, what alternative does Israel have but to strike back?

This depiction of the situation is accepted by the Canadian government under Stephen Harper.

And there is a certain logic to it - if we restrict our focus to the falling rockets.

But restricting our focus like this obscures the central fact of this decades-old conflict - millions of Palestinians, in Gaza and the West Bank, have lived under Israeli military occupation for more than 40 years. (The removal of a few Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005 resulted in tighter, not looser, Israeli military control over the territory.)

When commentators like Halevi despair over Israel's agonizing choice - accept the falling rockets or face condemnation - they leave out another option: end the occupation.

Israeli spokespeople say they'd like to do this, but insist they can't negotiate with terrorists.

However, the evidence suggests another factor may be the real obstacle: Israel doesn't want to give up the land it's been occupying. Certainly, Israel has moved in the opposite direction, allowing Jewish settlers to take over large swaths of Palestinian land.

There are now more than 250,000 heavily-armed Jewish settlers living in the West Bank where a future Palestinian state is slated to be. They have made it clear they intend to stay.

Indeed, for the past 40 years, there have been two sets of developments going on simultaneously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - one under the glare of public attention and one largely off camera.

In the spotlight, there have been peace negotiations, interrupted by bouts of violence. Meanwhile, well out of sight, is the inexorable takeover of Palestinian land by Israeli settlements, effectively removing the possibility of a peace deal.

The failure of moderate Palestinian factions like Fatah to make any progress on the land front - or even to halt the settlements - led to the election of the more militant group Hamas in 2006.

Since the Israelis show no willingness to stop the land takeover, countries like Canada have a vital role to play.

Former Canadian Conservative leader Robert Stanfield understood this. In 1979, he was appointed to advise Joe Clark's government after it announced a controversial plan to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem - a move that signalled Canada's acceptance of Israel's annexation of Jerusalem.

After travelling to the region, Stanfield concluded that Canada shouldn't move the embassy because this would compromise Canada's role as a "fair minded interlocutor."

Crucially, Stanfield also asserted that the Palestinian issue lay at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that Canada should support a Palestinian homeland.

It is this broader perspective that is so lacking in the approach of the Canadian government today, allowing Israel to restrict the focus to the falling rockets.

One wonders if the prospect of giving up control over Palestinian land - foregoing the dream of expanding Israel to its biblical size - is what Israel's elite really finds "agonizing."

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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