CMEP: Christians Should Work With Jews for Holy Land Peace

CMEP: Christians Should Work With Jews for Holy Land Peace

I just spent an exhilarating and instructive week in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan with a Congressional Delegation (CODEL) co-sponsored by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and the J Street Education Fund. The delegation was led by Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and included Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA), Congressman Donald Payne(D-NJ), Congressman Bob Filner(D-CA), and Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH).   

The itinerary was drawn up to give Members of Congress a comprehensive view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a variety of perspectives – from the highest levels of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian political leadership to a wide spectrum of officials, civil society leaders, and opinion leaders on all sides. Often visitors to the Holy Land see only one side of the conflict, while of course there are many narratives and perspectives. To be effective advocates for peace, there is no substitute for firsthand experience with the complexities of the conflict.

Those with whom we met included His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Dan Meridor, members of the Knesset, the US Ambassador in Tel Aviv, the US Consul General in Jerusalem, Tzipi Livni who is head of the Kadima Party and Leader of Opposition in the Knesset, Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan and Armenian Archbishop Sharvanian, the  CEO of Augusta Victoria Hospital, the Chair of the Israeli Settlers Association, the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority General Dayton, the President of the New Israel Fund, the Director of UNRWA in Gaza, the Mayor of Sderot,  Gilad Shalit’s father,  and the head of Microsoft R&D in Israel.

Most spoke from their own perspective of the urgent need to end this terrible conflict as soon as possible. The problem is of course how to get there.  In the short run, Vice President Biden is expected in the region in early March and an Arab League summit in Libya is scheduled for April.   Several persons expressed the hope that the Biden visit and the approaching summit will motivate the two sides to agree to start comprehensive talks.   Remembering years of unsuccessful negotiations during the 1990s while Israeli settlements expanded dramatically in the Palestinian territories, Palestinians have refused to start talks as long as settlement construction continues. Memories of terror attacks during the second intifada still undermine confidence. George Mitchell has the difficult task of persuading both sides that this pattern can be broken. For that reason, there is talk that negotiations initially may be triangular, with Mitchell and his team playing an intermediary role as a broker in order to build confidence that negotiations can and will have real results.

Yet behind these efforts is the feeling by some that the status quo in Israel is comfortable and there is little reason to undertake the short term costs of change, even though continued unilateral Israeli rule over Palestinians threatens Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state.  There is need for a significant change in the political environment and expectations that the status quo cannot remain. That will be the task of the U.S. negotiators over the next year.   

The announced Israeli ten month settlement freeze in new construction in the West Bank that expires in September of this year can play an important role in bringing about change in the political environment. The announcement itself sparked resistance from settler groups who fear that a temporary freeze may become permanent. The September deadline also will motivate Palestinian negotiators who will not want to be blamed for an end of the freeze because of lack of real ongoing negotiations.

What captured public attention about the visit last week was press reports that the Foreign Ministry had issued a “boycott” order, saying the US CODEL should not be received by high level officials because J Street – and CMEP – are “anti-Israeli”.  This led to an indignant press conference by the CODEL and later an apology from the Foreign Ministry.    Details of the event and links to press reports are here.    What is significant about this incident, I believe, is not so much the obtuseness of the political party now running the Foreign Ministry, but greater recognition that it is legitimate for friends of Israel sometimes to not agree with policies of a particular political coalition or party. In the U.S., conservative groups and AIPAC can no longer claim to be the sole voice of those supporting Israel.      

CMEP’s grassroots support has increased dramatically in recent years.  The greater the role we play, the more push back we can expect from those attached to the status quo. Much work remans to be done to organize public opinion nationally behind strong U.S. leadership for a two state agreement.       

CMEP, J Street and other groups share the objective of a viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a secure Israel.   Christian groups and others interested in effective political advocacy for peace should seek opportunities to work together with the growing number of like-minded persons in the American Jewish and Arab-American communities.