As I watch the wounded and shell-shocked families spill across the border here this week, in the fourth major Arab-Israeli war in my life, a question nags at the back of my mind: Is this whole thing, this region’s lifetime of blood and paralysis, the fault of a well-meaning decision made by a single Canadian?
No, I don’t mean Stephen Harper. Luckily, nobody has heard of him here.
In the land of root causes, you have to go back further than that — and, again fortunately, nobody remembers the Canadian who was there at the beginning.
If you look for answers, you end up on something of a reverse zigzag that inevitably winds up at the same point. It goes something like this:
Why is Israel bombing the newly democratic Lebanon into the last century? Because the Lebanese state was hijacked by Hezbollah militants bent on destroying Israel.
How could Hezbollah have gained so much power there? Because Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and destroyed its civil society.
Why did Israel do that? Because Lebanon had become the base for Palestine Liberation Organization attacks.
Why was the PLO there? Because 300,000 Palestinian refugees had been forced into Lebanon during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Why had Israel started a war in 1967? Because the Arab states were poised to attack.
Why were they so angry at Israel? In short, because Israel’s 1948 birth, which should have been a noble historic moment, was violent, divisive and jingoistic, leaving a sea of refugees in a perpetual non-state, an atlas of indeterminate borders and a mechanism of mistrust that virtually guaranteed six decades of war.
It shouldn’t have been that way. The creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East was necessary, inevitable and certain to be bloody. But the bloodshed didn’t have to be a permanent, structural feature built into the state.
At the beginning of 1947, the British colony of Palestine had already been, for more than 15 years, the site of heated battles between Arabs and Jews. Both groups were avowedly anti-imperialist, and were using terrorism to force out the occupying army on their terms; a year earlier, Zionist terrorists had blown up the Jerusalem headquarters of the British occupying forces, killing 91 of its staff.
Attacks were happening almost daily. The occupiers couldn’t keep control, and people in England were protesting against the occupation.
And the world had just learned that six million Jews, a third of them small children, had been fed into gas chambers and ovens. That provided its own motive. The newborn United Nations saw a role for itself, and struck a committee.
Canada got talked into joining, by the United States, along with 10 other “neutral” nations. Ottawa chose as its main representative Ivan Rand, a Supreme Court of Canada judge who would later go on to create the University of Western Ontario law school.
The committee had two basic choices: It could partition Palestine into two more or less uni-ethnic countries. Or it could leave it intact, creating a federal country with Jewish and Arab provinces, equal numbers of Jews and Arabs in the parliament, a neutral capital, a constitutionally secular state, and guaranteed full rights for both groups. That was the first idea to be proposed, by India and Yugoslavia and Iran.
Their proposal had its problems — the Jewish provinces should have been given full control over their immigration, a vital point. But these things could have been worked out.
They weren’t. The pressures for partition were strong — even though the world had just endured six years of total war over the concept of the uni-ethnic state.
The idea of achieving “essential economic and social unity after first creating political and geographical disunity by partition,” those three countries wrote, “is impractical, unworkable, and could not possibly provide for two reasonably viable states.”
There were going to be conflicts between Arabs and Jews, they said. If those conflicts stayed within one country, they would have to be resolved, even if they were violent and heated. Otherwise, the conflicts would envelop the whole region, maybe permanently.
And they nearly persuaded the rest of the countries. The representative from India pointed out that the two-state map would be absurd: An oblong squiggle. Who could draw such a shape?
Mr. Rand, the well-meaning Canadian, stepped to the floor. He had drawn the shape. It looked like today’s “security fence” boundary, though it encompassed a much smaller area. And he won over the majority of the countries with his arguments. The UN General Assembly took the advice, and voted for partition.
Arabs hated it, and attacked. Israel fought back, seizing more land, limiting the rights of its minorities, rendering a Palestinian state almost impossible, and turning Palestine into the monotonous curse of the Arab world and an irresolvable dilemma that would guarantee further wars.
Would things be different if Mr. Rand hadn’t made his case? There almost certainly would have been some sort of war, civil or otherwise, between Arabs and Jews. But a lifetime of wars? An entire displaced people whose plight inspires the world’s ugliest divisions? Perhaps not.
It’s hard to avoid concluding, with the luxury of hindsight, that the decision made by that UN committee almost 60 years ago was the worst, and the most irreversible, of all possible choices. It’s just as well they have all forgotten that it was made by a Canadian.