Dunsmore: Obama and the Middle East

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(HOST) In his first few days in office, President Barack Obama has signaled a significant new American commitment to reviving the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. However, commentator Barrie Dunsmore, a veteran foreign and diplomatic correspondent for ABC news, tells us this morning that Obama’s efforts may come too late.

(DUNSMORE) From his first full day in office, President Obama has demonstrated that he wants to re-establish America as an even-handed mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This week, his newly appointed special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, went to the region, to help shore up the shaky Gaza cease fire – and to listen to Israaeli and Arab leaders’ assessments.  

Mitchell is a good choice for this job. He helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland.  And in 2000 he headed up a commission on the Middle East that concluded that Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlements were the main causes of violence. That hasn’t fundamentally changed.

But the Middle East that Mitchell dealt with nine years ago is a very different place today. Yassir Arafat is dead, and the Palestinian leadership is now split between his discredited successors in Fatah and the militant Islamist group Hamas. Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza has evidently further strengthened both Israeli and Palestinian hardliners. The two-state solution – where Israel and an independent Palestine made up of the West Bank and Gaza would exist side by side in peace – was once supported by a substantial majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. But that solution may no longer be feasible.

This pessimistic view has been expressed in recent days by two American journalists with many years of experience in the region – Tom Friedman of the New York Times and Bob Simon of CBS News. I know both men well, having covered the State Department and the Middle East with each of them, and I give substantial weight to their opinions on this subject.

Friedman wrote a few days ago, "We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers – Hamas in Gaza and fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank – have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible."

Simon has just completed a story on 60 Minutes. He focuses on the now 300,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank. The settlements occupy a significant patchwork of the land and use up much of the water of the West Bank. They are connected by networks of expressways that are closed to Palestinians – who on their own roads face some 600 Israeli military checkpoints.  The settlements, along with Israel’s security barrier that snakes around the West Bank, often on Palestinian land, apparently preclude a contiguous Palestinian state. And, as the settlers stridently told Simon, they will fight to the end to remain where they are.  Simon concludes, therefore, that the two-state solution is no longer viable. In his words, "…history has passed it by."

If the judgment of those seasoned observers is correct, then the Israelis and the Palestinians are condemned to years more of escalating violence – which will surely have negative consequences throughout the Middle East and far beyond.

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