President Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East last week -- two days in Israel and four hours in the West Bank -- did exactly nothing to advance the prospects for a just settlement in that volatile region. He'd have done better going to the movies in Washington.
Way back in June 2009, when he presumably believed that his views mattered, Mr. Obama delivered an unqualified message to the Israeli government, then as now headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking in Cairo, he boldly declared that "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
When the President made that statement, according to the American-Israeli Co-operative Enterprise, the Jewish population in the West Bank was 296,700. Exactly three years later, in June 2012, it was 350,150. Pretty heady stuff, eh, being the most powerful man in the world.
This time, as a fast learner, Mr. Obama did not open himself to being humiliated a second time, merely allowing that the settlements don't really advance the cause of peace. He also shared his continuing belief in a two-state solution. Well, good luck with that. The trip was spun as having low expectations and it lived up to them all.
At exactly the same time, Mr. Netanyahu's latest cabinet was beginning its work. In his new coalition, as the report by the Globe's Patrick Martin was headed, "Settlers emerge as big winners." For Israeli settlers, in the words of one Israeli commentator, "it's a dream come true." Nor will negotiations with the Palestinians "get very far," according to Mr. Martin. "The governing alliance is comprised mostly of members of Knesset [parliament] who oppose a two-state solution to the conflict."
This is not good news. Dealing with the settlements and negotiating a viable two-state solution are the absolute prerequisites for a genuinely secure future for Israel. Don't believe me. That's the unanimous consensus of the "gatekeepers," the six men who have for the past 30 years led Shin Bet, Israeli's super-secret anti-terrorist intelligence and security agency. Their remarkable consensus and their quite shocking candour are on display in a must-see documentary from Israeli director Dror Moreh called, simply, The Gatekeepers. President Obama is very, very high on the list of those who must see it.
Make no mistake: These are really tough guys. That's why they got the job. "In the war against terror, forget about morality," one says. "We'd kill whoever tried to kill us," says another. And they did. That these six ruthless patriots would all agree to speak publicly can only reflect the desperation and frustration they feel. Because they're also really unhappy guys. They actually seem to share the hopelessness of so many Palestinians. The future, one says, is "very dark".
That few Israelis understand Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict better than these six, that they all agree on the road Israel must follow in its own self-interest, that they have such disdain for their own political leaders, that they believe Israel's many extreme right-wing settlers, rabbis and ideologues are more dangerous to Israel's future than any possible Arab threat -- surely all this must trouble those who consistently offer uncritical support for anything an Israeli government says or does.
If I were to say what these six say, I'd be denounced as a Jewish anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. So listen to the six:
- Israelis have become "a cruel people."
- "We have become cruel to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population."
- "We are making the lives of millions unbearable."
- The treatment of Palestinians by Israelis puts more Israelis at risk.
- "You can't make peace by military means."
- The Israeli Defence Force -- its military -- is "a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War 2. Similar, but not identical [because of the Holocaust]."
- In the pursuit of an agreement, there were times when "there was good faith from the Palestinians but not from our side."
According to Globe and Mail columnist Shira Herzog, "Mr. Netanyahu hastened to announce he had no intention of seeing The Gatekeepers." Small wonder. The six are not exactly fans. In the film Mr. Netanyahu is shown fanning the flames of hatred against the peace efforts of Yitzhak Rabin, one of his predecessors, creating an atmosphere of such violence that Rabin was murdered in cold blood by a young right-wing Israeli extremist.
This film must be seen by anyone who wants to grasp Middle East realities. In a sane world, that would include the Prime Minister of Canada and certainly his Foreign Affairs Minister, whose unaccountable, almost visceral personal hostility towards the Palestinians knows few bounds.
Mr. Baird never uses a carrot when a nice big stick is handy. The other day, addressing a powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, he threatened "consequences" for the Palestinians if they dared pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court. More than any government on earth, ours believes Israel can do no wrong, the Palestinians no right. Who knows why?
Will Harper and Baird go see The Gatekeepers, or will they slavishly follow Mr. Netanyahu here as in every other way ? If they go, will they learn anything? Can two Canadian politicians actually decide they know better than these six Israelis? Can the gatekeepers be dismissed without the slightest change in Canadian policy? What a question. Of course they can.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.
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