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Western Nations Have Colonized The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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The United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution that demands Israel stop settlement activities on Palestinian territories Dec. 23, 2016. (Photo: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

If we've learned anything from the rise of demagogues and populists like Donald Trump and Geert Wilders, it may be that hatred wins votes. Stir up hatred with the most inflammatory language possible, and people will line up behind you. This is a fact of psychology, not a moral condemnation; there are times when it just feels so good to be angry that we don't care to be right, and some have learned to use that to their political advantage.

When there's nothing to be angry about at home, they invent it, as with the immigration scares that drive the campaigns of Donald Trump and Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. Other times, we import divisive issues and appropriate them for our own politics.

The fact that most articles and op-eds about the Israel-Palestine conflict focus on the U.S. as much as Israel and Palestine shows just how much they have appropriated this foreign conflict for domestic politics. That this issue has the power to divide political parties in Canada (and it has, to some extent, in every party over the years) should tell us that the role of the international community in resolving conflict is getting lost.

I received comments and emails from some saying that we are anti-Semitic, and from others saying that we are Zionists.

In 2016, some of the Green Party of Canada's biggest headlines unfortunately came from internal controversy around a policy resolution over officially adopting BDS -- an acronym for "Boycott, Divest, Sanction" -- that references taking economic action to protest Israel's illegal settlements. But BDS is also the name of a controversial international movement, and the policy did not distinguish between them. We spent weeks rewriting the policy for clarity, and it was widely embraced as having maintained the purpose of the original resolution without the controversial elements.

Yet before, during, and even after this revision process, I received comments and emails from some saying that we are anti-Semitic, and from others saying that we are Zionists. These comments include the kind of baggage-laden words that we tried to avoid in the policy, like "genocide," "apartheid," "terrorist," and other words that trigger reactionary conflict, and often come with ultimatums and pledges to resign membership unless we issue strong statements full of that kind of condemnatory rhetoric.

It should never be said that we cannot use these words, but we need to use them appropriately. It is possible to compare Israel's treatment of Palestinians with the apartheid system, but they are not the same thing, and saying so does not justify Israel's policies. It's also possible to recognize that terrorism is a serious problem in this conflict, without throwing the label around to refer to Palestinians (or Israelis) in general. This conflict is nothing if not complex, and jumping to the most incendiary language reduces it to a simple, emotion-driven crusade that may or may not have anything to do with the application of international law.

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United States permanent Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power attends the United Nations Security Council meeting on Dec. 23, 2016. (Photo: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

If you unplugged yourself from the news over the holidays, you may not have noticed that the United Nations passed Resolution 2334, which condemns Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Even if you were watching, you probably heard more about America than the UN or Israel. Western nations have colonized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appropriated it for our own political rhetoric, laden with emotional baggage and using words carefully chosen to have the most effect.

For example, in a CBC op-ed, Mike Fegelman described Resolution 2334 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's related speech by saying it "attacked the Jewish state and assaulted its very legitimacy." This despite Kerry talking specifically about ensuring "Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state."

Fegelman cites a supposedly widespread sense of outrage and betrayal by "[Israel's] most trusted ally", in reference to the United States, despite the fact that the resolution was written in the U.K., passed unanimously (with the U.S. abstaining), and has been praised by nations around the world. Fegelman only mentions the approval of the Palestinian Authority and two terrorist organizations, as though the UN delegates have opposed their own nations and taken up the cause of Islamic Jihad.

If the path to peace does not pass through shared acknowledgement of the rule of law, it will go nowhere.

On the other side, Tony Burman's Jan. 7 column in the Toronto Star begins with a comparison between the Israel of today and the apartheid South Africa of the 1980s. He points out that Kerry was "withering in his criticisms of Palestinian and Arab leaders." Burman calls the current Israeli government "extremist," and points out that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party received less than 25 per cent of the national vote in the last election. Rather than Fegelman's depiction of a rogue UN in support of terrorist groups, Burman paints a picture of a rogue Israeli dictator intent on resurrecting racist policies.

It's as if they were reading very different versions of the resolution, and heard John Kerry give two very different speeches. Just as we experienced last year, Kerry is being painted as anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian at the same time; the actual content of his speech, and especially of the resolution that prompted it, gets lost in the polarizing rhetoric.

The reality of the Israel-Palestine situation, stripped of all politicized rhetoric and historical arguments, is that the United Nations Security Council has found Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be illegal under international law. They have called on the government of Israel to stop breaking the law, and at the same time have urged the Palestinian authorities to stop Palestinian terrorist groups from also breaking the law. Hardly controversial, when you say it like that.

If the path to peace does not pass through shared acknowledgement of the rule of law, it will go nowhere.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Middle East peace at the Department of State in Washington Dec. 28, 2016. (Photo: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters/TPX Images of the Day)

Demagogues are great at campaigning, but terrible at governing. If we want to see real progress in Israel and Palestine, it must be in reference to international and domestic law and human rights, rather than the rhetoric of Western politics. The role of Western nations in Israel and Palestine is not to moralize and attack caricatures from afar; instead, we should engage with them as nations in an international community under recognized legal frameworks, adjusting our diplomatic and trade policies in light of the legality, or illegality, of our partners' actions.

If settlements are an illegal occupation of Palestine, then they should not be covered by the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, just as Canada should not be shipping weapons to Saudi Arabia when it is engaged in ongoing human rights violations in Yemen.

In short, we in the West need to recognize the ways in which we have appropriated the politics, conflicts and even misery of others for our own politics -- even in our op-eds and columns. We should consider our words carefully, and put our money where our mouths are.

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