Reflections on an American Visit

Dr. Bernard Sabella, Jerusalem
November 19, 2006

Dr. Bernard Sabella, Jerusalem
November 19, 2006

I was in the United States during the couple of weeks preceding the November 7th Congressional elections. I visited mostly in Washington D.C. where I attended the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation annual conference on Arab Christians in the Holy Land and was hosted by Churches for Middle East Peace for a 3-day intensive introduction to political Washington from Capitol Hill to the State Department. I visited with an advisor to the VP and presented two lectures one at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the other at Catholic University. I ended my visit in Minnesota where, among other events, I delivered two homilies at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis, and gave the Joseph Thompson lecture on Palestine at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.  

My overall impression of the visit was that we Palestinians need to do more to explain our position to the American people. Americans are preoccupied by issues and concerns close to home. Certainly, the situation in Iraq was an overarching political issue in the Congressional elections that influenced the outcome, but clearly not the only issue that determined the course of voting. The story from the Palestinian and Arab side remains rather unclear and often not heard. While some would argue that regardless of efforts to get the Palestinian story across, the strong pro-Israel lobby and others in Washington would not allow it to become influential or to reach those for whom it is intended. This, however, is only half the truth. The other half is that we do not have a policy ourselves to spread the word and to reach out to thousands of Americans eager and willing to hear our story.

Clearly, American politicians, from meetings I have had with some of them, are aware of the entanglement that Iraq represents. They are also aware that with last summer's Israeli failure in Lebanon, the situation for America's image and position in the Middle East is not that promising either. But there is also a sense by some politicians and others that the US needs to move forward on efforts to work out a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict as soon as possible. This, according to these politicians, should be part of a more comprehensive peace package that is realistically tuned to the diversity of Arab political positions rather than to that of the "New Middle East" as advanced by some circles in Washington. Yet, with this willingness to consider some movement towards a new political initiative in the Middle East, there are some who argue that the President cannot master enough internal political power, with a Democrat Congress, to spear forward with such an initiative. Others also argue that the problem is whether both the Palestinians and the Israelis are ready to order house to benefit from such a proposed or hoped for initiative.

These are important questions that point to the problematics of launching a new US-led political initiative in the Middle East. But on more serious thinking, the situation as is does not promise any respite for any of the parties involved in the various running conflicts of the region. Specifically for us Palestinians, the continuation of Israeli occupation with its land expropriation, cantonization of Palestinian population centers with the Separation Wall and the hundreds of checkpoints, settlement expansions and militaristic options would mean that in two years time, there will be nothing left on the ground on which any one in Palestine can negotiate. A viable and geographically contiguous Palestinian state is still a feasible outcome, if Washington and the international community, moves forward quickly.

In spite of the usual sensitivity to the "neutrality" of any US-led initiative in the Middle East, we may be in need at this specific time, given the recent European call for an international peace conference, for the US to be actively involved. For without the US involvement, any chance for the success of peace initiatives remains doubtful. The internal dynamics of Washington's politics, post Congressional elections, may need some time to create the required balance to support the US Administration in a new initiative. Hopefully, this would be short. The Palestinian efforts at ordering house should soon hopefully culminate with the formation of a government acceptable to all, in spite of apparent difficulties and obstacles. The Arab League Peace Plan indicates the willingness of the Arab World to move onward with a negotiation process. Israel, as always, remains hard pressed to adopt a peace position or vision, in spite of the voices that call for such a course. Israel needs prodding towards peace and who is better able to do this than its proctor and principal strategic ally.

One politician in Washington told me that a new peace initiative may fail and hence this could be reason for not advancing it. The fear of failure should not stop anyone from attempting a political course at this particular time. Other costlier courses, primarily of military nature, have been attempted in the recent past and they have failed miserably in reaching desired political objectives.

All could gain from a successful peace initiative and all have a responsibility to make it successful. For us Palestinians, a successful initiative would mean an end to Israeli occupation, the return of all territories occupied since June 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Certainly the road to negotiations is an arduous and most difficult road but it is always preferable to military and war options that would leave all of us in the end with terrible repercussions that offer no real prospects for political advancement. Maybe the naïve desire to see peace in this part of the world drives people like me to be hopeful, for once, in the ability of the American Administration to show another side that can bring forth some hope in a region that has for long become accustomed to the despair engendered by politics.

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