Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.
With Israel being a Canadian election issue as much as it ever has been, it has been a while since the moral ledger seemed clear. Only those Globe and Mail readers older than 60 will directly recall the Six Day War, where, only two decades after the murderous Nazi rampage, Israel enjoyed a lightning-fast victory over the surrounding Arab states that had not yet normalized to the Jewish state's existence.
My, how things have changed.
Minus the Sinai Desert, which Israel gave to Egypt as part of its historic peace agreement, the added territorial depth has been a mixed blessing for Israel. With Israeli-Jordanian peace now in place, the West Bank has proved more of a population burden than a strategic asset. Israel's land, air and naval control over Hamas-ruled Gaza has been a powder keg. And with the intermittent violence plaguing East Jerusalem, and the draconian residency requirements a thorn in the side of East Jerusalem Palestinians, neither is Israel's unrecognized annexation over the eastern part of the city a simple matter. Atop all of this is a restive and increasingly enraged Palestinian population that sees its basic rights being trampled by an occupying state. And none of this even gets to the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees.
So if Israel's immediate strategic environment is fraught, and Israelis and Palestinians are as much at odds as they ever have been, what about the moral question for Canadians and their government? Between Israel and the Palestinians, is there a right side and a wrong side?
There are at least four issues we should consider: historical suffering, contemporary suffering, freedom and power. For each, the answer is complex.
From a historical perspective, Jews were almost always in a state of great insecurity, culminating in the Holocaust. For Jews, national sovereignty therefore serves as an important measure of collective safety. But as we know, Israel's creation brought about great suffering on the part of the Palestinians, partly through farmers being dispossessed as absentee landlords sold land to Jewish arrivals, and partly through the violent dispossession that took place during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the series of events that Palestinians call the Nakba.
Israelis will tell you that had the Arab side accepted the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, the war – and thus much of the refugee issue – would have been averted. Palestinians will tell you that the proposed partition, while UN-sanctioned, was fundamentally unjust.
On contemporary suffering, Israelis suffer from Palestinian violence and terrorism. Israel's defensive Iron Dome technology and the West Bank security barrier have greatly reduced the carnage, but this past week has been a particularly upsetting one as Palestinian terrorists killed four Israeli civilians in two separate attacks. But Palestinians suffer from human-rights abuses and daily humiliation as their freedom of movement is curtailed by the Israeli military occupation. While there is no moral justification for violence against civilians, there is a political context that must be considered for us to gain any analytical traction.
Which brings us to the question of freedom more broadly. One day, we might find ourselves living in a borderless, postnational world. Until then, though, nationalism as measured through territorial claims are the stuff of collective political expression. By dint of military and political know-how, the Zionists managed to get a state. Partly by early rejectionism and now by relative powerlessness, the Palestinians still have none. Palestinians see Zionism, as aided by Britain, as an example of hated colonialism; Israelis see it as the kind of national self-realization that every nation longs for.
And then there is the issue of power. Israel, with its world-class military and its American aid, is many-fold more powerful than the Palestinians. Israelis look at the power ledger differently, though, gazing warily at Iran and girding against political Islam. Still, one could argue that it is the responsibility of the powerful to change, particularly when the powerful's actions – like settlement building and carrying out the occupation – directly intensify the imbalance.
Ultimately, though, looking at the human dimension suggests an outcome that has long been the consensus but around which fewer are now galvanizing, either because of parochial allegiances or policy fatigue: a two-state solution. It's the tragedy of Israel in Palestine that freedom has been cast in zero-sum terms. Israel's statehood and Israeli lives should remain protected, but so, too, do the Palestinians need protecting. Palestinian commemoration of their own historic losses need not lead to a rollback of Israeli sovereignty; and Israeli independence need not entail military occupation. In their government's approach to this tormented region, Canadians should demand no less.