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John B. Quigley: No, President Obama's trip will not help foster a Mideast peace

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 7:45 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Associated Press) President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Associated Press)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — What President Obama may have done out of public view during his recent trip to Israel is unknown, but his Jerusalem speech gave little indication that Middle East peace was high on his agenda.

Obama had some catch-up to do, after our disastrous "no" vote at the United Nations on Palestine statehood last November. The rest of the world sees Palestine statehood as an obvious fact, even as Palestine's territory is under occupation by Israel. Our "no" vote put the United States in an isolated position — and squarely on Israel's side. Not a good posture from which to negotiate peace.

Obama to his credit did call on his Israeli audience to put themselves in the position of the Palestine population — under the thumb of a foreign army. But nothing he said suggests a path to peace, or that he is making a serious effort.

In passages in the speech that have escaped media attention, Obama referred repeatedly to Israel as a Jewish state. He said that "the Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state." The reference may seem innocuous, but it shows Obama tracking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agenda. Unlike his predecessors, Netanyahu has been insisting that Palestine not only recognize Israel as a state, but recognize it as a Jewish state.

If the United States tries to force that view on Palestine, there is little point to peace negotiations. A draft treaty that would require Palestine to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a non-starter. A fifth of Israel's population is Arab, and they already live in second-class status. Strong political forces in Israel think that once Israel withdraws from Palestine, Israel should force its Arabs to go there. Israel as a Jewish state is code for apartheid.

Netanyahu's demand is also code for a continuing refusal on Israel's part to repatriate the Arabs who fled in1948 as the Israeli army was taking territory. The bulk of Palestine's Arab population was expelled at gunpoint by the Israeli army as it advanced. When Netanyahu says that Israel is Jewish, he means that it need not let back the Arabs.

The sticking point for even starting peace talks is Israel's settlements. Israel has used negotiations as a cover to give it time to take more and more Palestinian land. A few years ago, the Palestine Government said it would no longer negotiate unless settlement construction was frozen.

All Obama could muster about the settlements in his Jerusalem speech is that "continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace." By implication, the existing settlements are not "counterproductive to the cause of peace." Yet half a million Israelis now populate the Palestine heartland. And that figure is likely to climb, with the installation just before Obama's arrival of a new Israeli government with a settler leader as Minister of Housing.

As for further construction, Obama did not even suggest that Israel must call it off to get peace talks started. Nor did he state what the rest of the world thinks about the existing settlements, namely, that they are illegal. Israeli officials who transfer Israelis into settlements commit war crimes that land them in the prisoner's dock of the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Obama tried but failed in his first term to get Israel to stop settlement construction. "Political leaders," he told his Israeli audience, "will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks."

So it was up to them to stop the settlements. He seemed to be washing his hands of the issue.

If peace is to come to the Middle East, it will not be for anything Obama said in Jerusalem.

John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.

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