The Blame Game: John Kerry versus Pauline Marois
After every important political act, at significant political junctions, one of the first responses is who gets credit and who gets blamed. The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians may be drawing its last breaths and the corpse of the process is not yet on the coroner’s gurney, yet pundits and ordinary folk alike are already weighing in and assessing blame. The dissection of the Québec election began almost as soon as the election was called.
Seventeen minutes after the results of the Québec election, a chorus that began a week before the end of the Québec election, now began its steep rise to a crescendo over the next three hours. On 9 March 2014, Pauline Marois was to blame for going off message by allowing her new star candidate, media mogul, billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, to upstage her, thrust his fist in the air and, like a Black Power revolutionary, shout the equivalent of, “Vive le Québec libre!”. Marois compounded the error when a video caught her shoving Péladeau aside as she once again took centre stage alone before the mike and then further compounded this double message by blabbering at length over the next week about precisely when a referendum would be held with weasel phrases such as “when Québeckers want it” or “when they are ready for it,” and then speculating at length on the currency Québeckers would use afterwards, border controls, etc.
Others blamed the introduction of the Charter of Values for being so divisive, for bringing bigotry out of the woodwork and for misrepresenting what Québeckers stood for. On 10 September 2013, when Bernard Drainville, as the ironically named Minister Responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, introduced the Charter of Values to save secularism from the threat of religion infiltrating state institutions, this imitation of France’s doctrine of laicité and its method of contemporary enforcement did not fit the behaviour and attitude of most Québeckers who came into contact on a daily basis with members of religious minorities who wore the professions of their religion proudly on their heads or around their necks when they came to work in Québec hospitals, schools and government offices
In 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled i that such decisions should be determined by the principle of reasonable accommodation. The Bouchard Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation in its hearings around the province had already demonstrated the enormous amount of latent bigotry around the province when the issue of reasonable accommodation was raised. The Commission also concretely documented that most Québeckers in their daily intercourse with minorities were very accommodating and exemplars of tolerance. The Commission recommended against playing into the sentiments of bigots and for allowing reasonable accommodation to be worked out in practice. The Marois government chose not to follow the lead of the Commission. Their divisive policy to ban the wearing of religious symbols, either as a political ploy to help get re-elected with a majority or as an expression of their own deepest prejudices and fears or a mixture of both, backfired
Further, as the debate on the Charter of Values unfurled, instead of retreating to some degree to deal with the criticism, the exponents dug in their heels and tightened the restrictions. The recent election only permitted the unreasonable nature of the fears to be pronounced by some of the oldest and most respected citizens of the Province from the Francophones (le rattrapage) while, in practice, many Québeckers began to realize it would mean the flight from their province of highly regarded professionals whom the province needed if the economy was to complete its path to modernization and renewed economic growth.
For the first time Marois faced an opposition leader who proudly wore a Maple Leaf pin, who even dared to suggest that all Québeckers should be bilingual, who trusted and supported the strength of the French fact and reality in the province, and who echoed the sentiment of most younger voters who were tired of divisiveness in politics. However, the articulation of this set of competing values threatened the very raison d’être of the PQ party. In reality, the election was a great success, bringing forth in an open manner a fundamental choice for the people of Québec, whether in the future they were to face a series of debates over how to protect the unique character of the French fact in Canada and in North America, a renewed use of the device of a referendum on sovereignty that had become anathema to most Québeckers, a belief that Québeckers were under constant and continuing cultural threat and could not and did not feel secure enough and strong enough to go out into the world and face the competition. Marois may have been very wrong in reading the mood of her constituency but she should perhaps be praised for, even if reluctantly and contradictorily, putting the choice clearly before Québec voters.
In the case of John Kerry, the problem is quite different. He had repeatedly said that, in the end, the choice was up to the Palestinians and the Israelis. “We can’t want peace more than they do” had been his mantra which he repeated once again on 5 April when it was evident that the negotiations were in deep trouble. Further, Kerry had made it known that the prospects for a deal were not high when the latest effort began, but he could not accept evading making a strenuous effort. US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that he owed that as an obligation to the world community, to Americans and especially the millions of Israelis and Palestinians who generally desired an end to the conflict between the two peoples. Nevertheless, he was blamed for giving rise to unachievable expectations, for the inevitable aftermath of disappointment and depression, for the high costs of a diplomatic initiative that ends in failure and for the possible (inevitable?) violence that was likely or sure to arise as a result of that failure and the further erosion of trust between the two parties. Further, if past failures had seriously wounded the peace parties on both sides, this failure would mortally wound them.
It is true that risks have consequences, that the effort does not leave the situation at the status quo ante, that new layers of cynicism and despondency are piled upon a long history of failure. However, failures also bring about clarity, just as the Québec election did. Are negotiations and a peace agreement to be based on the 1967 cease fire lines with reasonable adjustments and equal trade offs from both sides as Kerry had declared? (“We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”) Or does the resolution have to go back to the 1948 deal with respect to borders, rights and mutual recognition? Or is there a third option?
Last night on Steve Paikin’s, “The Agenda” on TVO, Steve had as one guest, Diana Buttu, an Israeli-born Palestinian-Canadian lawyer who, in the past, has served as a spokesperson for the PLO and an advisor on international law with respect to the peace negotiations, but who has been outspokenly critical of Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator. His other guest was Emmanuel Adler a political scientist at U. of T.’s Munk Centre. The two discussed with Steve Paikin the negotiations and their likely immanent failure.
While Emmanuel Adler wanted to cling to a faint hope for the receding prospect of a two-state solution, it seemed clear that Diana wanted to go back and override the original decision on division to resurrect a one state solution with the ideal of Jews and Palestinians as equal citizens in a single state rather than the principle of national self-determination being the basis of the political order in former Palestine, but without acknowledging this would mean the end of the Zionist dream of national self-determination for the Jewish people and that this was a resolution totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Jews in Israel. Supporting her position was the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had not agreed to recognition of the 1967 borders as the basis for the talks with Israel renewed last July.
What seems clear is that who gets blamed depends, in part, on the outcome wanted or expected. If the goal is a single state in which Israel is eliminated, the failure of the talks is simply a proof that the two-state solution is and has always been doomed. Then the blame goes to Kerry for convening the talks and misleading international public opinion, to Israel which refuses to grant Palestinian demands even for the two-state solution, and perhaps a little to Abbas for allowing himself to be drawn once again into such a fruitless process, though he is somewhat excused because he is operating from such a relatively weak position. If the goal is a two-state solution, then the blame could go to Netanyahu a) for not being flexible enough, b) for provocatively approving the building of 700 housing units in Gilo even though discussions had already determined that Gilo in Jerusalem would be part of Israel, and even though Israel had made clear at the beginning of the negotiations that the building freeze would only apply to the West Bank, and c) for a tactical error in not releasing the prisoners at the time originally agreed, even though by that stage of the negotiations Israel had become convinced that the talks could not have any positive results. Or blame could go to Abbas for also lacking flexibility and for taking a step of initiating an application to join various international bodies even before the talks ended.
Who gets blames also depends on the integrity of the person casting blame. Diana Buttu has a record of distorting facts and even outright lying to support arguments and allegations she makes against Israel and to advance the goal of a one state solution, while Emmanuel Adler is a renowned scholar of great integrity and a well-known dove who despairs at Netanyahu’s leadership. So the politics of blame were not balanced.
Notice that, unlike the Québec elections, there is no winner. So the blame largely overlaps with responsibility and is totally congruent with the responsibility allocated to the loser. Explaining why something happened (allocating responsibility) and then blaming someone for that responsibility – that is, adding a negative morally critical judgment to the one responsible – are related but different acts. In the case of the Québec election, the loser comes in for blame for the loss. In the peace talks, everyone loses when talks break down, including the mediator and both sides, except those who wanted the talks to break down because they deplored the two-state solution. The argument then involves how to allocate, spread or diffuse the blame. But if the moral or political reprehensibility is to be added to the judgment, it may be totally inappropriate when applied to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, or, at least, only of use in revealing the position of the person casting judgment rather than whether any of the agents involved deserve to be characterized as morally or politically to be hung out in disgrace.
My own conviction is that understanding the reasons for the breakdown and the responsibility of the different parties is important, but when everyone is a loser, casting blame is not only useless but counter-productive. Instead, the breakdown allows one to recast the problem. A peace agreement based on a two-state solution is NOT possible, at least for the foreseeable future, no more possible than a successful secessionist referendum in Québec. Does that mean you should support a one state solution? Not at all, for that is far more impossible than a two-state solution and, in effect, would doom the victors on the ground to being losers.
So what position should one take as each party takes up positions that will best advance its cause. The Palestinians will attempt to shore up its position as the victim, to shore up its position under international law, to shore up its position in the world of public opinion by working harder on the BDS effort, and the efforts to denigrate and delegitimate Israel. For the only grounds on which the weaker party can advance its cause is through the use of moral arguments, legal arguments and through sentiment. Israel as the stronger party will have to defend itself as best it can on all these fronts, and be limited in any aggressive actions it can take lest its position significantly worsen under international law, dominant international norms and, most of all, public sentiment. At the same time, Israel can try to use its position to both pressure the Palestinians – generally counter-productive – to create partnerships with Palestinians on the ground – generally positive – to get the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution. The dilemma is that using economic pressure and the prerogatives of the powerful, such a real economic sanctions, congruently fits right into the international campaign of the Palestinians. Further, the result can run counter to any Israeli interests. For example, cutting off the rebate of taxes to the Palestinian Authority could cripple it economically, but the result may be the rise of Hamas to power in the West Bank, the initiation of the third intifada, and the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.
My own position is to advise a fourth strategy. The pursuit of the two-state solution through peace negotiations is as dead for now as the pursuit of self-determination for Québec. The pursuit of a one-state solution is a fraudulent illusion and a mask to cover up the pursuit of the death of Zionism and Israel. The resort by Israel to economic pressure and tightening the screws of oppression are both counter-productive and will only lead to strengthening the Palestinian cause in the long run.
The only position, that I think is viable, is to use only the minimal level of economic and military coercion necessary to defend the state of Israel and its people while pursuing a two-state solution and de facto boundaries on the basis of the agreements that have already been negotiated and agreed upon while enhancing economic, intellectual and political partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Just as the pursuit of sovereignty has to be aufgehoben in Québec, preserved, raised up to an ideal and put away on a shelf for an unknown and far off future, so too must the goal of reaching an agreement on a two-state solution be preserved, raised up to an ideal and put away on a shelf for the foreseeable future while taking steps on the ground to advance such a goal. The PQ failed because they were impatient while the rest of Canada remained patient with Québec. The Israeli government must act with patience, generosity and forbearance using the behaviour of Ottawa as an example.