AP File Photo
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, defied U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for a freeze of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
I still remember the elation of those Israeli troops who had just taken the Egyptian town of El Kantara on the northern end of the Suez Canal on the fifth day of the Six Day June 1967 War.
They and their country had clearly won a stunning military victory over the largest of their Arab enemies — proving once and for all that Israelis were not going to be “driven into the sea” as Arab propagandists of the day had threatened endlessly. Just over two decades removed from the Holocaust, those were heady days for the new state of Israel (and for a young journalist covering his first war.)
But I venture to say that none of us at that moment could have imagined that 45 years later, the consequences of that brief but decisive war would remain the number one issue among major international disputes.
Kantara is back in Egyptian hands — it was actually retaken by the Egyptian army when it crossed the canal at the start of the 1973 War. The Sinai Desert and all Egyptian land still occupied by the Israelis after the ’67 and ’73 wars were returned as part of the 1979 Israeli- Egyptian peace treaty.
The rest of the captured territory, except for a small corner of the Syrian Golan Heights, constitutes Palestine, which several million Palestinians claim as their homeland. Yet after nearly half a century, Palestine remains under often harsh Israeli military occupation or control.
It was perhaps only a symbolic gesture, but that Palestinian state was effectively recognized by the vast majority of the United Nations General Assembly 10 days ago when it voted to make Palestine a non-member observer state. Only the United States, Israel and seven others voted no.
For at least two years I have believed that the so-called two-state solution by which Israel and Palestine would agree to live side by side in peace — a formula once accepted by majorities on both sides and less than a decade ago seemed like a near certainty — was effectively dead.
But after all these decades of bloody wars and acts of terrorism, interspersed with what seemed like an endless “peace process” which only rarely produced anything tangible, I still held just a shred of hope. I guess I did not want to emphatically declare dead the only hope there was for peace in the Middle East. But I can delude myself no longer.
For me, the U.N. vote was the last straw. In effect, Israel argued that only it could grant a Palestinian state legitimacy, Then, having resoundingly lost the argument, Israel chose to defy the world and use the U.N. vote as an excuse to dramatically expand Israeli settlements near Jerusalem.
The area known as E1, in which Israel plans to construct 3,000 or more units, is highly controversial because when completed it will effectively bisect the West Bank — meaning a contiguous Palestinian state will no longer be possible.
This proves to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention that the current government of Israel not only does not support the two-state solution — its policies are specifically designed to make sure that an independent Palestinian state never comes to fruition. And the fact is that President Barack Obama, in his unwillingness to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over these policies, shares responsibility for this perpetuation of injustice.
It’s no secret to anyone who reads this column that I supported Obama’s re-election. I was encouraged by his initial outreach to Muslims and his promises to try to resolve the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Last year when Obama publicly asked Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, I supported him although I wondered at the time if he understood the nature of the buzz-saw he was walking into.
For more than three decades it has been American policy to consider the settlements “illegal” and “obstacles to peace.” But while presidents Carter and Bush Senior tried, no American president had ever been able to permanently stop the Israeli colonization of Palestine — which is what the settlement policy really is.
In 1980 there were fewer than 100,000 Jewish settlers on all occupied Arab territory. Today there are more than 500,000 in the West Bank including nearly 200,000 in East Jerusalem. It has long been assumed that in any peace agreement Israel would keep most of the large settlements in the Jerusalem area and the Palestinians would be compensated with land swaps from other parts of Israel proper.
However, more recently the West Bank has come to look like Swiss cheese with Jewish settlements representing the large holes and which under the latest settlement plans will be sliced into two disconnected portions.
Even though it’s obvious Netanyahu really had no intention of accepting a Palestinian state, with more wishful thinking than was justified I thought President Obama might emerge as an effective mediator. The case of the settlement freeze debacle proved otherwise.
When Netanyahu responded to Obama’s call for a settlement freeze with bullying defiance, the president folded like a cheap suit. Obama apparently calculated that his re-election was more important than a short settlement freeze — which was the most he could hope for anyway — so he cut his loses.
I get it. But I consider that performance the worst of Obama’s first term. It dramatically weakened his influence in the rapidly changing new Arab world. And it emboldened Netanyahu to think that given his reverential treatment by the U.S. Congress, he could do anything he pleased — including starting a war with Iran which Obama would be forced to support.
Still, there is one small part of me that clings to the hope that Obama’s acquiescence in Netanyahu’s unseemly behavior and his unquestioning recent American support for Israel in Gaza and at the U.N., is the president’s way of creating time and conditions to avoid a disastrous new war with Iran.
That theory will be soon be tested — because next year a crisis involving Israel and Iran is almost certainly coming.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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