By any measure, Charles de Gaulle was one of the greatest and most visionary statesmen of the twentieth century.  In France's darkest hour, amid military collapse and German occupation in 1940, he escaped to London and called upon his compatriots to carry on a struggle that most of them believed to be lost.  Four years later, he returned in triumph to head a provisional postwar government, from which he resigned two years later, frustrated by political squabbling and a return to business as usual.  In 1958, he was called out of retirement to avoid the danger of civil war resulting from a disastrous colonial war in Algeria.  He ended the war in Algeria, oversaw a mostly smooth transition to independence in the rest of France's remaining colonies, and preserved democracy and the rule of law in France itself, introducing a new constitution that remains in force today.  An early advocate of European integration, he built a strong partnership with France's longtime enemy, (West) Germany, and at the height of the Cold War, dared to dream of a Europe united "from the Atlantic to the Urals."  For the United States, he was an often difficult ally, and was a particularly outspoken critic of the American war in Vietnam, criticism inspired in no small part by France's own experience with costly and ultimately futile wars of decolonization.

One fact often forgotten today, as public opinion in France (as throughout Europe and much of the world) has turned increasingly against Israel and in favor of the Palestinian cause, is that France was once a strong supporter, ally, and trade partner of Israel, cooperating, notably, in the disastrous Suez invasion of 1956.  France was the first European nation to grant full civil rights to the Jews (in 1791), and was (and is) home to a substantial Jewish population, many of whom initially saw the Zionist project, with its social-democratic aspirations, as parallel to France's own republican tradition.  All of that changed in 1967, when Israel, as the result of a victorious war against its Arab neighbors, brought the west bank and Gaza under military occupation.

I recently came across several statements made by De Gaulle, then in his ninth year as president of France, regarding the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which in light of current events struck me as amazingly prophetic.  As diplomatic tensions between Israel and Egypt escalated in the early months of 1967, De Gaulle appealed to both nations to preserve the peace.  On May 24, De Gaulle, at this point still an ally of Israel, gave the following warning to the Israeli Foreign Minister:

"Don't make war.  You will be considered the aggressor by the world and by me.  You will cause the Soviet Union to penetrate more deeply into the Middle East, and Israel will suffer the consequences.  You will create a Palestinian nationalism, and you will never get rid of it."

Of course, this well-meaning warning was ignored, and war broke out soon thereafter.  With American arms and assistance, Israel quickly defeated its enemies and occupied territories overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians.  De Gaulle recognized the danger that this situation posed for peace in the Middle East, and for Israel's own existence as a democratic Jewish state, and warned on November 27:

"Now, Israel is organizing on the territories it holds an occupation which can only lead to oppression, repression, expulsions, and against which there is already a resistance, which Israel calls terrorism."

Nearly fifty years later, with seemingly endless bloodshed and the loss of innocent lives on both sides, these warnings appear especially prescient.  Israel has consistently won the battle of arms, but the losses to its international reputation have been far more significant than any military objective it has been able to achieve, and much like France's own experience in the Algerian War, settler colonialism poses a deadly threat to its continued existence as a democratic state.  While I fear it may now be too late, the two-state solution, with Israel returning to the boundaries of 1967, remains the only path to a lasting peace.

[Note:  both De Gaulle quotes are taken from a recent book, Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, Rene Cassin and Human Rights:  From the Great War to the Universal Declaration (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 329-330.]

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