(updated below - Update II)
The Jerusalem Post today reports that, according to a newly released study by Peace Now, "the number of new structures in the West Bank settlements and outposts increased by 69 percent in 2008, compared to 2007" and "the settler population grew from 270,000 in 2007 to 285,000 in 2008." Earlier this week, the leading candidate to be Israel's next Prime Minister, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, said that while he "has no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank," he "would let Jewish settlements expand in the West Bank if he's elected prime minister."
When it comes to explanations about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Americans are typically inundated with reports about the indiscriminate, civilian-targeting violence engaged in by Palestinian religious fanatics and other extremists who oppose the very existence of Israel. But they hear little about their Israeli counterparts -- the religious extremists and radical nationalists who, with the tacit and sometimes active support of the Israeli Government and military (funded and armed by the U.S.), continue to take over more and more land in the West Bank, imposing ever-harsher and more oppressive conditions on West Bank Palestinians. All of that is making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to envision, if not close to impossible.
Continuing the clear and positive trend of finally having a more balanced discussion of Israel in the U.S. media, 60 Minutes' Bob Simon, on Sunday night, broadcast a very good report focusing on how this settlement expansion occurs, the destructive mentality of the Israeli settlers, the devastating impact which settlement expansion has on the lives of Palestinians, and the ways in which settlement expansions -- by design -- are making a Palestinian state increasingly inconceivable. It also provides a very clear sense of how difficult is the task of Obama envoy George Mitchell, an outspoken opponent of West Bank settlements, who is in Israel today to begin his mediation efforts. [As he typically does whenever there is criticism directed towards Israeli actions in the U.S. media, the increasingly self-caricaturing Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League immediately sprung into action, angrily denouncing 60 Minutes for what he called a "journalistic hatchet job on Israel"].
Much has been made of Barack Obama's ability to present a new and better American face to the world -- and the initial steps have been a clear improvement in many realms (including the appointment of George Mitchell) -- but in much of the world, particularly the Muslim world, perceptions will change (understandably so) only if those pretty words are backed up by actions:
In contrast to the enthusiastic reception Obama's victory has garnered around the world, the Arab world has been more cautious about the new U.S. president - with most skeptical that American policy in the region will change substantially.
"I can't be optimistic until I see something tangible," said Hatem al-Kurdi, 35, a Gaza City engineer who saw parts of the interview. "Anyone can say nice words, but you have to follow with actions."
After earlier dismissing Obama as following the same policies as Bush, officials from the militant Palestinian Hamas group, which rule the Gaza Strip, softened their stance.
"In the last couple of days there have been a lot of statements (from Obama), some of them very positive, and choosing this George Mitchell as an envoy," said Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas official interviewed on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news network. "I think there are some positive things we have to count."
In the West Bank, Haytham Rafati was not as optimistic.
"I heard Obama, his tone is different, but I can't believe that any U.S. president can be different when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Rafati, 30, who works in Ramallah. "I will believe Obama is different in his approach to the Islamic world only when I see him pulling out his forces from Iraq and pressing Israel on the Palestinian rights."
Every issue written about here -- civil liberties, restoration of the Constitution, imposing limitations on our virtually limitless surveillance state, decreasing the extent to which our government and political culture are so militarized -- depends, in large part, upon our extricating ourselves from these endless Middle East conflicts. The 12-minute 60 Minutes segment, which is highly recommended for those who haven't seen it, conveys a very clear sense of how difficult that task is going to be and how the blame for this conflict is hardly confined to one side:
UPDATE: In an extremely positive review of Obama's interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch notes that, in the interview, Obama himself made the critical point: "But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions." Symbolic acts can be important and powerful, and their impact shouldn't be discounted (Kevin Drum, for instance, suggests Tehran as the choice for the major Muslim capital in which Obama's Middle East speech should be delivered; imagine the positive impact that might make). But as is true with the Executive Order directing the closing of Guantanamo, Obama will and should be judged not on the symbolic aspects of his Middle East policies but on what he actually does.
UPDATE II: In comments, LibertarianLeft makes an important point that can't be emphasized enough:
Enabling Israel's self-destruction
The irony, of course, is that by making a two-state solution impossible, Israel is hurtling down a path likely to lead to its destruction as a Jewish state due to demographics.
American diplomatic and financial pressure on Israel to halt the construction of West Bank settlements and ultimately dismantle them -- and to come to an agreement based roughly on the Arab League’s two-state proposal -- is the only hope that country has for long-term survival.
Instead, the U.S. has been behaving like the enabling spouse of an alcoholic, making endless excuses and paying the bills while indulging in a shared denial of reality. The self-styled friends of Israel in the Lobby and in Congress are may love the Jewish state, but they're helping the object of their affection to destroy herself.
Indeed. The very restrained efforts back in 1991 by Bush 41 and his then-Secretary of State Jim Baker to pressure Israel to cease settlement expansion in the West Bank (by conditioning further U.S. aid on its cessation) provoked the intense scorn of what Bush called "the power of the pro-Israel lobby," and to this day, Baker is despised and demonized as "anti-Israel" and even "anti-Semitic" by the allegedly "pro-Israel" Right in the U.S. because of that very mild attempt to use the massive amounts of American aid to influence Israeli actions. Yet imagine how much better off Israel would be (to say nothing of the U.S.) had Bush and Baker succeeded (rather than been thwarted) in those efforts.