Israel’s false logic on Iran nuclear deal

Secretary of State John Kerry with other diplomats in Geneva on Nov. 22. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State
Secretary of State John Kerry with other diplomats in Geneva on Nov. 22. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State

The big powers, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, recently reached a deal with Iran to temporarily freeze a nuclear program that could have produced a weapon for that country. In return, the U.S. and five other nations have agreed to ease up on economic sanctions that have long hurt Iranian citizens and their economy. The deal just negotiated is intended to buy time to pursue a more comprehensive agreement that would halt — or even roll back — Iran’s nuclear program altogether.

Of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately denounced the deal as an “historic mistake,” saying that Israel will never allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon. John Baird, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, is only slightly less provocative in his insistence that Iran can’t be trusted. Baird’s over-heated remarks are in marked contrast to those of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders who prefer diplomacy to belligerence.

Here, we have two ironies although they are seldom mentioned in the news and even less often in speeches made by political leaders.

One is that Israel has possessed nuclear weapons for years but refuses to admit it. It’s estimated that Israel has between 200 and 300 nuclear warheads loaded on short- and medium-range missiles, putting them on a par with Britain and France. Conversely, Iran has no nuclear weapons and says that its program is being developed for peaceful purposes only. Still, many countries do not believe that, and Iran has been the subject of punishing economic sanctions, including the freezing of international bank accounts containing revenue from oil sales.

So when might we expect similar pressure to be placed upon Israel to acknowledge its possession of nuclear weapons and agree to dismantle them?

The second irony is Netanyahu’s insistence that economic sanctions against Iran should remain in place. As justification, he points to Iran’s domestic human rights abuses and its proxy support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria. Yet the Israeli government and its supporters bristle at any mention of economic sanctions against Israel for its decades-long oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

As for foreign interventions, Israeli jets have made several attacks on Syria. It’s also widely believed that Israel was behind the assassinations of four scientists working within Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel dismisses any suggestion of equivalency between its actions at home and abroad and those of Iran. This stance may resonate in Israel and to a lesser extent in Western nations, but from the perspective of the Palestinians and Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbours, it is seen as a hollow and self-serving claim.

In early October, Netanyahu delivered a bitter speech before the United Nations, denouncing negotiations with Iran as a ruse and a ploy, and describing Iran’s newly elected president Rasan Rouhani as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.“

But as commentators have pointed out to both Netanyahu and Baird, it is not so much a matter of trust as of verifiable assurances that Iran is not building a bomb.

This article appeared on the United Church Observer blog on November 28, 2013.

PeaceQuest on Canada’s wars

Mother Canada at the Vimy memorial in France
Mother Canada at the Vimy memorial in France

A government that recently spent millions of dollars memorializing the War of 1812 plans to spend much more, commemorating the centennial of the First World War and re-dedicating the National War Memorial.

But while those plans are being made to celebrate militarized patriotism, a group called PeaceQuest is busy offering a counter-narrative to war, talking about re-dedicating the Peace Tower — which rises above the Parliament building — and celebrating the yearning for peace that runs through Canada’s history and psyche.

Originating in Kingston, Ont. and with a chapter in Ottawa, PeaceQuest plans to spread to other cities and towns. One of those involved in Jamie Swift, who works in Kingston for a religious order, The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and is the co-author of a well-received book, called Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.

Says Swift: “The government will use anniversaries of the First World War and Vimy Ridge to extend its narrative about our nation being forged in fire and coming of age through those military events. We view them as a tragedy and not as a great stepping stone to Canadian nationhood.”

PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. “We are more attracted to the politics of proposition,” Swift says. “What we want to do is engage in more of a cultural project that looks at our country in broader terms than its military history. Polling consistently shows that Canadian have a deep attachment to peace and to our reputation as peace keepers and peacemakers.”

Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization to which other groups and individuals would belong: “We want to organize around themes that a variety of groups could support in their own ways. In Kingston, we are organized around several streams, including faith, education and culture. For example, we know that the peace theme is central to the Catholic mass and in the religious services of other Christian churches, mosques and synagogues.”

The cultural stream is also important.  “There is a lot going on in theatre and literature and music that deals with peace,” Swift adds. He mentions a book, called The Glorious Art of Peace, by author John Gittings and a film called Joyeux Noël, which explains how on Christmas Eve 1914, German and Allied soldiers spontaneously laid down their guns and embraced the men in trenches across the way – an unplanned moment of humanity in an otherwise brutal war.

Canadians and their media love celebrating anniversaries, and the government will use that interest to promote its warrior nation agenda. PeaceQuest, on the other hand, will use those same anniversaries to tap into something more profound.

“War is a tragedy,” says Swift, “but we also want people to consider how they can live in peace with each other in their families and communities, and finally among nations.”

This article was published on the United Church Observer blog on November 13, 2013.

Pulpit and Politics, best stories 2012

I worked for years in newsrooms and each December we would produce what we called Year Enders, which summarized the most significant stories that we had covered in the past 12 months. In that tradition, I have reviewed Pulpit and Politics for the year past and this is a brief summary of what I have found. Continue reading Pulpit and Politics, best stories 2012

Murray Thomson, peace activist at 90

Murray Thomson at 90,  Koozma Tarasoff photo

If Murray Thomson wasn’t a pacifist you might call him a happy warrior. The moving force behind many worthy peace endeavours, he will soon turn 90 and more than 130 of his friends gathered recently in Ottawa to celebrate. There was a dinner with much good humour and music, some of it supplied by Thomson on his violin, but predictably the event was also a fund raiser and was preceded by a panel and discussion about the best way to get rid of all nuclear weapons. An american-based organization called Ploughshares Fund (no relative of Canada’s Project Ploughshares) estimates that there are about 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world. We know that nine countries have them with Iran threatening to join the club. Thomson, along with two other elders of the peace movement, has come up with an interesting new proposal. The three are recipients of the Order of Canada (OC), our most distinguished award for public service. Ernie Regehr is a Mennonite and the co-founder (with Thomson) of Project Ploughshares.  Doug Roche is a former editor of Catholic newspapers, a Conservative MP between 1972 and 1984, Canada’s UN Ambassador for Disarmament between 1984 and 1989, and later an independent in the Senate. In 2011, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Continue reading Murray Thomson, peace activist at 90

Remembrance Day, T.T. Shields and war

War Memorial Ottawa

On the eve of Remembrance Day, I attended a Brahms concert in the century-old Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa. As I walked around during the intermission, I found myself looking at memorial plaques on the walls to honour the church’s young men who died in the First and Second World Wars. Coincidentally, the church’s first service was offered in 1914, the year in which the First World War began. I tried to imagine the scene that year and particularly what might have been said about the war from the pulpit in Canadian churches. I recalled a series of sermons by the Reverend Thomas Todhunter Shields that I had discovered while researching my book Great Canadian Speeches. It was all fire and brimstone in favour of the fight.

When Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, Canada and the other members of the Empire were automatically involved even though they had not been consulted beforehand. Canadians of British origin were decidedly in favour of supporting the war, saying that Canadians had a duty to fight on behalf of Motherland and Empire. Many people who lived in Quebec and others such as my grandparents, who had emigrated from Central Europe, were much less enthusiastic. Continue reading Remembrance Day, T.T. Shields and war

Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

I was one of the speakers at a public consultation held in Ottawa on November 3 by the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI). The group has been advocating for federal government legislation to create a Canadian Department of Peace. The rationale is that the Department of National Defence is devoted to planning and prosecuting war but that we should also have a Department of Peace with a minister at the cabinet table. His or her department would be responsible for providing a peace lens in all federal government activities as well as promoting peace building activities in Canada and abroad. Continue reading Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

Department of Peace moves forward

 A proposal that the Canadian government establish a Department of Peace has taken a step forward. Alex Atamanenko, the NDP Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior, tabled a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons on November 30 that could, if adopted, lead to the creation of such a department complete with its own minister at the cabinet table. The bill, which was co-seconded by Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, is a slightly amended version of one introduced into the last parliament by retired NDP MP, Bill Siksay. Continue reading Department of Peace moves forward

Izzeldin Abuelaish and Remembrance Day


Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (2009)

Although I have attended Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in the past, in 2009 I decided to support a smaller event whose theme was peace and reconciliation. On November 10 I was one of about three hundred people who heard an agonizingly sad but ultimately hopeful speech by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. He is a Palestinian paediatric physician and peace advocate whose house in Gaza was struck by Israeli tank shell on January 16, 2009.

Continue reading Izzeldin Abuelaish and Remembrance Day