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Time for More Sober Talk on Israel

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If you're in Ontario, it's one Liberal leadership race down and one to go. With the provincial race now behind us, let's take a peek at the federal contest.

A recent interview that federal Liberal leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay conducted with the National Post caught my eye for its rather striking title. Why the Post chose to make the headline of a "wide-ranging interview" something to do with a minute element of of Canadian non-domestic policy is beyond me.

What is more important, however, is discussing the content of Hall Findlay's comments as they appear excerpted in the interview summary. Reflecting on these comments will provide us, hopefully, with the ability to discuss Levantine politics in a more sober fashion in the future. (Disclosure: I am supporting Marc Garneau in this leadership race. My opinions here and elsewhere are mine and do not necessarily reflect the view of any leadership campaign.)

First off, Stephen Harper does not provide Israel with "absolute, blind, unilateral support [...] at all costs." What Stephen Harper does do is turn what should be a foreign policy issue into a domestic electoral wedge in order to earn the support of Jewish voters through careful and extensive messaging.

Not even two weeks before Hall Findlay's interview with the Post, Harper's foreign minister John Baird was joining the global chorus of criticism of Israel's decision to plan new settlement construction in the wake of the Palestinian Authority's recent United Nations bid to earn recognition of statehood.

The position of the Harper government is that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal. The Obama administration won't go that far -- they'll only call them illegitimate. If we zero in on settlements as Hall Findlay does, then clearly the Obama administration -- reviled in conservative Jewish circles for not being pro-Israel enough -- appears to be more supportive of the Jewish state than Harper. I could go on.

Second, it's time to put an end to the use of the following phrases and terms: "anti-Israel," "pro-Israel," and "to support Israel." Israel is a state. No one ever accuses a head of government of being too "pro-France" or "anti-Spain." Using simplistic adjectives to describe a prime minister isn't conducive to an intelligent conversation about international relations.

So let's go back to basics. The three fundamental tenets of the international relations paradigm known as realism explain quite accurately how the global -- or any regional -- system works.

First, the primary actor in the global system is the state. Second, the primary (and possibly exclusive) function that states perform on the global stage is pursue their interests (raison d'├ętat, as Cardinal Richelieu put it). Finally, international stability is achieved and military conflict is limited when there is a balance of power between states.

In the Levant today, there has been a balance of power between states since 1973. The designation of Israel by the United States under Richard Nixon as the regional hegemon have prevented inter-state war from erupting in the Levant ever since.

Israel's sheer strength made a peace treaty all the more attractive to Egypt, which in turn transformed the slowly-evolving disengagement line between Israel and Syria into the quietest frontier in the region. Without its ally Egypt, tiny Syria wasn't about to start a war with the Jewish state.

So when Western politicians talk about keeping Israel strong and secure, what they're talking about is preventing inter-state war in the Levant (inter-state war being far more destructive than other forms of war) and consequently not allowing another Arab oil embargo with significant global ramifications to take place as it did in 1973. (If you're interested, more on that here.)

That doesn't mean that Ottawa's relationship with Jerusalem isn't and shouldn't be more complex than that. What it does mean is that there's a reason why Israel is a Western ally and that public pronouncements by Western leaders usually reflect that partnership.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- from a Canadian perspective in a multipolar world -- should be treated by politicians and the media according to its stature as a minute element of Canadian foreign policy. When compared with trade policy with Asia, the Americas and Europe or with Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, it becomes clear that this conflict is not in the top tier of Canadian foreign policy priorities.

What Canada needs from its public policy, economic, political and media elite is an adult conversation about Canada's global outlook from a strategic perspective. A little dose of realism -- both in the paradigmatic and in the psychological sense -- would come in handy.

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