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UPDATED: Green Party of Canada has initial vote to Condemn Israeli Settlements

Has the Green Party taken the federal lead on Israel in the wake of continued assaults on Gaza despite Party President's comments?

by Brad Evoy

A tattered flag flies below the Bracha settlement in Nablus, Palestine
A tattered flag flies below the Bracha settlement in Nablus, Palestine

On July 21st, eighty-three percent of members at the recent Green Party of Canada Convention, voted to endorse a motion on condemning illegal Israeli settlements. We interviewed Ghaith El-Mothar (the mover of the motion itself and former co-Chair of the Young Greens' Council) and Alex Hill (one of the motions' supporters and Green Party of Ontario shadow critic) to find out more about the motion and the Green Party's apparent, new leadership amongst federal parties on Palestine.

Below is the unabridged interview.

Toronto Media Co-op (TMC): So, what was your primary motivation to raise this motion at this time?

Ghaith El-Mohtar: You know, it’s funny because this motion is actually incredibly similar to DFATD’s current stance on illegal settlements: they’re an obstacle to peace, and they need to stop.  This position is the norm among Western countries because the future of both Israel and Palestine is being held hostage by the religious far-right in Israel right now.  Due to the Harper Conservatives’ uncompromising support for Israel’s every action though, a politician stating current foreign policy has become outlandish: so outlandish that it garners attention when spoken not by the official opposition or third party, but by Canada’s fifth party.  Kafka would be laughing if he saw this. But anyways, that was the motivation of this motion for me: to help shift the discourse back where it needs to be for peace to happen.

Alex Hill: Every day that Israel continues to expand its illegal settlements represents a further blow to the viability of a contiguous Palestinian state and a just peace in the Holy Land. When Ghaith, a fellow student at uOttawa and Green Party member, told me about his motion I felt a moral compunction to do what I could to ensure it became official party policy.

TMC: In your view, what is the importance of federal-level leadership on this issue?

El-Mohtar: It’s crucial.  The peace movement in Israel (and, of course, Palestine – I’m focusing on politics in Israel because this is an asymmetrical conflict where Israel decides what happens for both sides) is up against awe-inspiring odds.  When a country with as much moral legitimacy as Canada (keep in mind the world thinks we invented peacekeeping) stands behind the religious far-right’s actions, it’s a major setback in what is already an uphill battle.  The NDP and Liberals have shown nothing but exceptional spinelessness in challenging the government on this, and this lack of leadership has both green lighted the Conservatives’ stance and marginalized the voices of peace advocates in Canada.

Hill: I don’t harbour any illusions about the transformative impact of this policy. The facts on the ground will remain the same regardless of what the Green Party of Canada says. In the absence of any moral leadership from the other political parties in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, I think we have a responsibility to take the lead in calling for justice. Israel needs to uphold its responsibilities under international law by ending its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and respecting the human rights of the Palestinian people. Canada has a responsibility as a respected middle power to put pressure on the Israeli government in this regard.

TMC: What is your and the Party's position on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement?

El-Mohtar: The BDS movement is one of many necessary pressures from the international community to redirect Israeli policy. It’s not a perfect one.  A blanket boycott puts pressure on all Israelis, bellicose settlers and peace activists alike.  At the same time though, it’s more than material deprivation.  It’s a powerful symbol of international disapproval that those same peace activists can then use against the country’s warmongers to highlight their increasing isolation on the world stage.  The utility of that symbolism in the fight for peace far outweighs the $40 million or so the Israeli economy has lost from the boycott. As for the GPC, its position is unclear – I don’t think there’s an explicit policy on it.

Hill: I do not believe the party has an official position on this matter. Personally, I support a B.D.S. movement targeted towards Israeli economic activity taking place in the settlements.

TMC: What has been the reaction within the party on the motion?

El-Mohtar: It has been overwhelmingly positive.  I can honestly count the number of detractors I’ve interacted with – from the motion’s start on the GPC website to its finish on the plenary floor – on one hand with fingers to spare.  I think Greens have shown that they really want to fill the void left by the country’s former party of conscience (a motion for more income tax brackets also passed with near consensus) in taking stands like this.

Hill: I am heartened by the very positive reception the motion has received from the party membership.

TMC: Have you felt any negative reaction from organizations associated with defending the state policies of Israel? Or, on the other hand, have you gained the support of organizations related to the Palestinian cause?

El-Mohtar: From the start, I had reached out to contacts in IJV [Independent Jewish Voices] and CJPME [Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East] to test the waters for the motion, and they were really helpful in providing facts, corrections and reviews for the motion.  I haven’t heard anything from other progressive organizations, but I imagine this is a welcome change for them.  I luckily haven’t received any kind of backlash from organizations defending Israel’s state policies.

Hill: I’m not aware of any backlash we’ve received as a result of this motion. I don’t believe most Canadians – regardless of ethnic or religious background -- view respecting international law as controversial or problematic. We’ll have to see how this policy is received in the long-run, though.

TMC: From your recollection, what is the Party's history on issues of this sort?

Hill: The party has long been committed to a two state solution. Unlike the other parties, who claim to support a two state solution, we seem to be the only ones who have fought for the conditions that would make such a goal realisable. For instance, we have long called for an end to the siege of Gaza, a cruel and ineffective form of collective punishment that obviates a peaceful conclusion to hostilities with Israel.

TMC: With that said, then, where does the party go from here, following from the motion if it is successful?

El-Mohtar: I’m not going to pretend like this is an historic, game-changing decision by the party.  But if this is the direction the GPC wants to go in, I think it would open up an interesting, albeit marginal, avenue for the kind of critical humanism and postcolonial thought that Canada’s foreign policy (and Canada’s political scene more generally) desperately needs.  This is something that the party, which holds non-violence and respect for diversity as founding values, can definitely succeed at doing.  This could set a laudable precedent as it grows into something bigger, and also give it an edge in breaking the monotony of canned spin with incisive evaluations on the state of our politics.  That’s something we urgently need as a country, so I hope it goes somewhere. Also, the motion passed the plenary floor!  It just needs ratification through a mail-in vote.

Hill: At this stage it seems this motion is bound to succeed. It was approved at convention, so now it just needs to be ratified by an on-line vote. If the membership has indicated its support for Palestinian statehood and an end to the settlements, then it needs to ensure the party transforms the debate in Canada about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by eschewing tired platitudes and outlining further concrete steps that need to be taken by Israel and Palestine to ensure the viability of a two state solution.

***UPDATE*** Following the preparation of this interview, Green Party President Paul Estrin has put forward his views on Gaza in the blog post on the party's website. These inflamatory and regressive statements seem to have driven some of the party to call for his resignation. We've followed up with Mr. El-Mohtar and Mr. Hill for their thoughts.

TMC: Do you have any thoughts on Paul Estrin's recent blog post on Gaza?
El-Mohtar: I agree with Alex's call for his resignation.  That post represents a profound lapse in judgment.  I can't think of any GPC president, or a president in any of the other parties for that matter, compromising their administrative neutrality by challenging high-profile party policy like this and continuing on with their duties.  

Presidents do retain a right to publicly express themselves as GPC members while fulfilling the party's top administrative role.  However, the administrative importance of this role should never be used to amplify a political challenge to the party's stance on an issue with so much media coverage.  It's a dramatic, and dangerous, misuse of the authority of the President's office.  Anything short of a resignation would legitimize such behaviour and leave the office of the President tarnished.

Hill: I think it extremely unfortunate -- indeed, outrageous -- that my party's president would use his title and public blog as a platform to openly challenge established party policy. Not only have his comments reflected a profound lack of judgement, but they come just days after the party membership at convention indicated their support for an immediate cessation of hostilities, a continuation of our custom of speaking truth to power, and an end to Israeli occupation. Most importantly, his post borders on the hysteric at times and displays Islamophobic and generally prejudicial tendencies. His views do not reflect my values as a Green or as a Jew. His views do not reflect the position of the party or that of Ms. May on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

TMC: In the comments, Alex, you call for Mr. Estrin's resignation. If he does not, will you be seeking to remove him from office, as the means to deal with this errant stance?
Hill: Yes, I have called for his resignation. Aside from his misguided and confused thinking on the conflict, he has abused his position as party president and has demonstrated a great lack of political acumen to boot. I am glad to see he has received such a backlash from the membership, and to hear Ms. May publicly state her disagreement with his beliefs. I think removing him from office, should he refuse to resign, would be the only way to clarify the seriousness of our position on this issue as well as the seriousness with which we regard an internal breach of ethics. This isn't about free speech. I am an extremely ardent supporter of freedom of expression. He has every right to say whatever he wants. It behooves him, however, to uphold the highest moral standards as a public figure, though. Members should be reasonably expected to hold him to account for his breach of ethics. Speech comes with consequences.

Photo by Michael Loadenthal.
Used through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

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Brad Evoy is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, blogger, writer, commentator, and sometimes firebrand. He has served as one of the Summer Membership and Admin. Coordinators for the Toronto Media Co-op and in the past has written for various other publications. Meanwhile, as an organizer, he's associated with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG-Toronto) and Scientists for the Right to Know, along with past associations with various student organizations in two provinces.

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