Sunday, October 18, 2015

FEDERAL ELECTION SERIES: The NDP on Israel-Palestine

This is going to be the final blog in my election series. I've already blogged about the Conservative and Liberal positions on Israel-Palestine. I had a short bit written about the Greens, but I haven't had time to turn it into a full piece, so I've mentioned them a little bit below. Thanks to all who have been reading these, and sorry that the last one didn't come until the day before election day.

Position on Israel-Palestine

Although I couldn’t find the official policies on Israel-Palestine for the Conservatives and Liberals online (please share them if you have them), the NDP has official party policy that I can quote in full. The NDP's election platform is nearly identical. The party's official policy reads:

“Working with partners for peace in Israel and Palestine, respecting UN resolutions and international law, supporting peaceful co-existence in viable, independent states with agreed-upon borders, an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and an end to violence targeting civilians.”

This policy statement is generally good, in my view, although I would remove “with agreed-upon borders” because it seems to give Israel a veto on any settlement, even if it follows international law, and I would change the second-last word “targeting” to “against”, since Israel constantly insists it does not target civilians, even as they kill them in the thousands. In my view, it would also be productive to include a clause emphasizing the right of Palestinians to sovereignty so the party could not only continue supporting the two-state solution but could also be open to other potential settlements, so long as they are peaceful and just (this would allow for a more open discussion of a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians could live together in a single democratic country).

Official policy aside, the NDP has a habit of equivocating on issues related to Israel-Palestine. When Israel was again attacking Gaza last summer, it took a long time for any official statement to come out of the caucus, and even then it was one where it was difficult for anyone concerned about justice and peace to be content with.

Contrary to much popular belief, my view is that the party’s position actually hasn’t changed much since Thomas Mulcair has become leader. The practice of not taking strong positions on the issue was nearly identical, in my view, under Jack Layton. I did express strong opposition to Mulcair’s leadership bid because of what I knew about his approach to Israel-Palestine, but although his positions haven’t been ideal, he has actually outperformed my expectations so far. Under his leadership the NDP took a very clear position that Canada should have voted in favour of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly in November 2012. Of the three major parties, they were the only party to take that position. I did find a fairly extensive article with quotes from Mulcair on Palestine, which is worth reading:


Mulcair’s approach in this article is clearly tailored to the crowd he is addressing, which seems representative of the left-wing in Israel (the groups hosting seem to be support groups for the Israeli group Peace Now and Israel’s Labour Party). It is notable that he makes clear the NDP’s opposition to expanding Israeli settlements and the party’s support for Palestinian statehood. While those are the positives in the article, there are negatives as well. Mulcair has made statements more than once about his positive view of the close friendship between Canada and Israel. While many see those statements as problematic, I am less concerned with them than I am with other parts of NDP policy. Like Harper’s “friendship” statement above, what matters is the nature of that friendship. The more concerning part of the interview for me is when he expresses opposition to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) and criticizes the use of the term “apartheid” when it’s applied to Israel. The advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has done a great job explaining why BDS is a useful tool and why political parties are misguided to reject it. I will link to that work below. On use of the term apartheid, I won’t go into the arguments here, but it is clearly a term that applies to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. While Mulcair says the term’s use “serves no purpose”, I would disagree. The term has a definition in international law that reads as follows:

“inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

One would be hard-pressed to make the case of that definition not being applied to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both within Israel and especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In my view, it is Mulcair’s refusal to apply the term to Israel that serves no purpose.

Willingness to discuss the issue

For me this is the NDP’s biggest problem when it comes to Israel-Palestine. In my view, the numerous potential candidates who have been rejected by the party due to the things they have said about Israel-Palestine are victim of an unofficial policy of saying nothing about the issue unless absolutely necessary (for more info google Morgan Wheeldon, Paul Manly, and Syed Hyder Ali). However, like the practice of issuing wishy-washy statements, I don’t see this practice as being new under Mulcair. These problems were ones that existed, even if they were more under the radar, under Jack Layton as well. When the NDP speaks about Israel-Palestine, it tends to be much better than the other major parties, so in my view, their unwillingness to discuss the issue is the most immediate problem.

To the NDP's credit, theirs is the only election platform of all the major parties (including the Greens) which even mentions Israel and Palestine. The Conservatives' platform mentions Israel. The Liberal and Green platforms are completely silent on the issue.

Diversity within the caucus

Although the Liberal Party is general seen as the “big tent” party, on the issue of Israel-Palestine, the NDP caucus is very diverse. Since the general rule is to say nothing about the issue, it is not easy to figure out where each MP stands on the issue beyond the official party position, particularly with the many MPs who joined the caucus in 2011. It is notable that NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice is the Chair of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to find a list of which MPs are members of the group (its existence and Chair are documented on Parliament’s website). If anyone has that list, please share it. Boulerice was the most outspoken advocate within Parliament for Palestinian rights during Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer and also previously showed public support for the Canadian Boat to Gaza, which aimed to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza while challenging Israel’s closure of Gaza’s borders. NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies has been a long-time staunch supporter of justice for Palestine, but unfortunately she has decided not to seek re-election. NDP MP Pat Martin has a news article posted on his website in which he, as well as MP Peter Stoffer and former MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, criticize members of their own caucus who refuse to condemn the use of the term “apartheid” in its application to Israel. The article can be found here:



In my experience, the negatives within the NDP caucus are the exceptions. I have found many more examples of MPs standing on the side of justice and peace than I have found negative examples like the previous one. In addition to Boulerice, NDP MP and Deputy Leader Megan Leslie has been on the record supporting Israeli Apartheid Week in her home community of Halifax. MP Niki Ashton voiced her support for a just and peaceful solution in Israel-Palestine during her campaign for the NDP leadership. Again, I can’t go through the entire caucus in this space, but there is clearly a diversity of opinions among NDP MPs, with most of those who are on the record supporting justice and peace.

Conclusion

My view is that the NDP, despite its many negatives on Israel-Palestine as detailed above, is the best of any of the major parties. While it is difficult to find any positives at all for the Liberals and Conservatives on this issue, the NDP is much more of a mixed back of positives and negatives. In my opinion, people passionate about peace and justice in Israel-Palestine who are part of the NDP need to keep pushing the party, at both the high levels of federal leadership and the lower levels of community organizing, to take a social justice approach to Israel-Palestine and to not be afraid to talk about it. Those who are passionate about the issue but are outside the party need to continue to push the party as well. That includes giving credit when it is due and criticizing the party when it deserves it (both are equally necessary). On so many issues in Canadian history, the NDP (and the CCF before it) are the first major party to adopt progressive initiatives, and eventually many are adopted by the other major parties (look at public health care, public pensions, gay marriage, and many other issues). 

In many ways, getting the major parties talking about these issues means first getting the general public talking about these issues. The more the public knows and cares about an issue the harder it is for politicians of any stripe to ignore. So write op-eds to your local paper about it. Talk to your friends and family about what is going on there. Suggest a book or a documentary (I highly recommend the film "Occuptation 101") to them if they're curious to learn more. Ultimately, that is how things will change in this country, where none of the major parties is offering an ideal point of view on Israel-Palestine - that is, who based on justice and peace for everyone living there.

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