On November 19, Canada voted along with 163 countries in favour of a draft UN resolution affirming the Palestinian right to self determination. The vote was immediately denounced by prominent Jewish Canadian organizations including CIJA and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. But it was praised by several Canadian human rights groups What was its real significance? What does it mean in practice? Read more…
In what has become an annual ritual at the United Nations, a package of 16 resolutions on the “Palestine question” is tabled every fall at the UN General Assembly (UNGA).
The resolutions have a strong symbolic significance. Generally, they support the Palestinian cause and are very critical of Israel. Every year they are upheld overwhelmingly by the General Assembly with only a few countries siding with Israel in opposition. In the past few years these have been USA, Canada, Australia and a few tiny island nations in the Pacific whose main interest appears to be keeping onside with the USA.
But while the resolutions do reflect world-wide support for the Palestinians, they are also largely “international political theatre” because General Assembly resolutions are not enforceable. And some countries simply use them as a platform to buff up their “anti colonial’ credentials on an international stage.
There is lots of hypocrisy on display. Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries are frequently among the countries voting and making speeches at the UNGA to support the Palestinian cause, while at the same time cutting agreements with the Israelis that go directly opposite to Palestinian interests. (In fact, according to Israeli sources, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in a secret meeting with Saudi Prince MBS almost at the same time the UN resolution was under consideration.)
Canadian voting has sharply moved closer to Israel
Since 2004, Canadian voting has gradually moved its votes from showing (at least nominal) support for human rights for Palestinians in favour of advocating for Israel. This evolution began under Prime Minister Paul Martin and his pro-Zionist Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, and accelerated further under Prime Minister Harper. Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has prepared a handy interactive dashboard that graphically illustrates this evolution.
A Canadian vote in favour of “Palestinian self-determination”
In 2019, and again this year, Canada broke ranks with Israel on ONE of the 16 resolutions. We joined 163 other countries declaring support for the Palestinian right of self-determination. Only five countries – Israel, the USA, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru voted against it.
The Canadian vote was significant in three ways.
- It showed Canadian independence from the USA. There should be little doubt that the USA wanted Canada to vote against the motion along with those tiny Pacific islands. But Canada chose to align itself with its European and other like-minded allies over the United States.
- By asserting the Palestinian right to self determination, Canada is explicitly expressing its disagreement with Israel’s recently passed “Nation State law”. which claims that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”
- It is one of Canada’s scarce actions in support of its long standing official policy in support of the “two state solution”. In 1947, Canada voted in favour of partitioning historic Palestine in order to create two states – a Jewish one and an Arab one. The Jewish state – Israel – did come into being in 1948 which Canada recognized in 1949. But Canada has done very little to support the creation of a Palestinian state. In fact, while Israel works hard to undermine that possibility, by expanding settlements, demolishing Palestinian homes, ethnically cleansing Jerusalem, even bombing Gaza, Canada has stood by, hardly saying a word.
The Canadian vote is also “domestic political theatre”
The decision on which way Canada will vote on these resolutions is customarily a domestic political decision made by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Of course, Canada’s Ambassador at the UN, the Hon. Bob Rae who happily describes himself as a Zionist, will no doubt have a say. As does the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Francois Philippe Champagne. But according to insiders at Global Affairs Canada, the final call on Canada’s positioning on the Israel/Palestine file is determined “downtown” (i.e. by the PMO.)
This year, Canada voted WITH Israel and AGAINST the Palestinians on 15 of the 16 MOTIONS tabled in the UNGA. In domestic politics, it would appear, considerations of “ethics, human rights or the promotion of democracy”, are trumped by a cold political calculus.
Liberal strategists know that human rights for Palestinians are very far from the top of the political agenda for most Canadians who are more concerned about COVID, climate change, unemployment and a dozen other pressing issues.
But it is of high concern for Canada’s Jewish community and for Canada’s much smaller (and badly organized) Palestinian community. In this unequal competition the Palestinians (even including their Canadian supporters) have little to offer the Liberals in terms of either electoral or financial support.
And yet more theatre...
Virtually all of the significant Zionist organizations including CIJA, Bnai Brith Canada, and Simon Wiesenthal Foundation) came out with a strong public attack against the Liberals for their single pro-Palestinian vote.
But that too, is a bit of theatre. Every year CIJA and the others are routinely CONSULTED by the government BEFORE the UN vote. While they express outrage, they all know what is going to happen. It actually suits their purposes because it allows them to demonstrate to their base just how steadfastly they are willing to stand up to the Prime Minister.
Ironically, that attack by the Zionist organizations may also have served the Liberal’s objectives as well. Being attacked for voting against Israel on one of the 16 resolutions provides hope to the Liberal party’s “left wing” that they can still win the party over to more progressive positions on this issue. It prevents the NDP from being able to present itself as the only important party concerned about human rights for Palestinians.
Finally it allows the Liberals to also hold out an olive branch to liberal Zionist Jews who are deeply concerned about the rightward drift of the major Jewish organizations like CIJA, Bnai Brith and others. “It would be more accurate, (..) if the organizations in question would make clear that they speak on behalf of themselves and not the Jewish community at large,” commented Jon Allen, a former Canadian Ambassador to Israel.
Even before being elected, Prime Minister Trudeau made no secret of the fact that he would have Israel’s “back” He has faithfully carried out his promises made to various Jewish groups across the country – at the UN, in trade deals and elsewhere.
Of course the UN vote and Canada’s participation is significant. It reflects a world-wide acceptance of the right of the Palestinian people to exist and be recognized as a people.
But looking at the whole suite of UN votes, in which Canada voted with Israel 15 times out of 16, it seems clear that the Trudeau Liberals feel that there is more to be gained in voting in defense of Israel than in defending the human rights of Palestinians.
“The Zionist narrative of the need for a Jewish State remains very powerful”, noted Palestinian American intellectual Dr. Rashid Khalidi in a recent OFIP webinar. The Liberal calculation is not likely to change until a lot more Canadians are aware of, and show concern for, the plight of the Palestinians.
NOTE: Last week’s vote was on a draft resolution in the UN’s Third Committee. The resolution now heads to the UN General Assembly for debate and vote in plenary session in December. While countries almost always vote the same in plenary as they do in committee, one can anticipate continuing behind-the-scenes pressure on Canada to reverse its position – and another opportunity for the lobby to make noise and self-promote.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
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