Bob Rae was Premier of Ontario 1990-1995, a federal Member of Parliament 2008-2013 and leader of the federal Liberal Party 2011-2013.
It has often been said that the American experience in Vietnam showed how difficult it now is to wage a war on television. The same is even more true today in Gaza – not only television but social media, cameras on every phone, eyes of the world everywhere.
Israel’s drive into Gaza, to defend itself against rocket attacks “and end them once and for all,” has been conducted in the full glare of world publicity. Its justification is that Hamas rockets threaten Israeli lives and security, and that no neighbour can become a haven for terrorist attacks. First an air war, and then a major ground invasion are for the Israelis fully justified as acts of self defence.
As in 2012, Hamas and its allies in Gaza have resisted, and intensified their own rocket attacks. It has become a bloody conflict, in which many hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed. The war in Gaza has become a humanitarian catastrophe.
The trouble with wars is that targets are missed. Civilians die because there is no gap between a guerrilla army and the people, and because mistakes are made. Any war, but particularly a war in a densely populated place like Gaza, will involve the killing of children, women, old people, as well as military targets. The minute by minute pictures and videos from cellphone cameras have brought this terrible reality to billions of people.
The inevitable commissions of inquiry will try to find out more: to what extent Israeli claims that the care and effort in identifying where rockets were coming from – “pinpointing” attacks – were in fact observed; whether, and to what extent, Hamas really did use innocents to make the slaughter worse. It is a bitter conflict, and terrible things have been done. And there must be accountability for what has happened.
The twittersphere is a haven for much hatred, and it is impossible to have a serious dialogue about anything on its airwaves. But even the hatred tells us how deep the conflict is. Hamas’s Charter contains several laudatory references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the forged document that is anti-semitism personified.
The man who remains Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for the unending occupation of Gaza as the solution of the problem. And yet experience surely teaches us that no occupation produces peace, it only produces resentment and anger. Most Israelis understand that.
There are so many ghosts, so many illusions. The Israelis will not be pushed into the sea. Nor will the Palestinians in Gaza. Both peoples are in the Middle East to stay.
The reason the military solution should always be the last resort is because it is often the least successful. Politics and diplomacy should not be despised, nor should anyone engage in a rhetoric that implies all the victims are on one side. The dead are not numbers, they are people with family and friends, lives lost.
There is a remarkable absence of consequential thinking, and a huge amount of reliance on rhetorical denunciation and absolute moral certainty as the basis for action. Good public policy is about understanding the consequences of actions, what happens if something is done, or left undone. Many of the actors involved are ideological thinkers, of one kind or another. They live in worlds of black and white, of good and bad, ignoring the reality that terrible things are often done in the name of the good. Michael Bell has pointed out in these pages that it is all about the tunnels – the Israeli insistence that they must all be dealt with before leaving.
People need to ask themselves what will happen once the conflict has ended – what, short of a comprehensive and enforceable peace, will prevent more tunnels from being built.
Israelis and Palestinians need to be able to live safely, proudly and in dignity. Wherever we see behaviour that makes that simple objective more difficult, we should be able to articulate that thought without being called an anti-semite, or anti-Arab, or naive.
The media doesn’t describe in similar detail the terrible toll in Syria, or the fact that in the last twenty years millions have died, and continue to die, in conflicts in central Africa. But no sailor should blame the weather. That is the way it is, and there is no avoiding the deep contrast between the depth of public support in Israel for the intervention in Gaza and the huge misgivings and outright opposition in the rest of the world. For Israel, this is not a popularity contest, but the deepening of its isolation is a tragedy in itself, as is the renewed presence of an ugly anti-semitism that once again blames “the Jews.”
One other fact also stands out – the Arab world has no illusions about the ruthless cynicism of Hamas. They have been prepared to use their own people as pawns in a destructive and hateful conflict.
Canada’s friendship with Israel should not simply mean rote repetition that Israel has the right to defend itself. We are also friends of a two state solution, to human rights, to the rules of war, and to a principle of public policy that looks to solutions, wisdom, and the simple question “will this work ?” We are in the middle of a dangerous tragedy and leadership requires expressing a vision that is inclusive of all our values and principles. The unravelling of a painfully negotiated 72 hour ceasefire shows how difficult finding a path out really is. The kidnapping of a single soldier means the efforts to find solutions will be even more difficult. But those efforts must continue.
No one should assume it will be easy. There are so many conflicting and competing currents. The presence of more deeply radical forces throughout the Middle East and the Arab and Muslim worlds both broaden and deepen the nature of the conflict. What is clear is that absent a longer-term solution, which is based on equal commitments to security and peaceful co-existence, the situation will remain deeply unstable with violence never far from the surface.
Simplistic thinking looks for easy options. There are none. But triumph and despair are still impostors.