Churches for Middle East Peace: Where Do We Go From Here?

Churches for Middle East Peace: Where Do We Go From Here?

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Last year Aaron David Miller wrote in my copy of his book, “The Much Too Promised Land” the inscription, “For Warren, who knows how hard the road to Arab-Israeli peace can be”.    In truth, I did not in fact appreciate how difficult it is to bring two sides together, even if it is clearly in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States. In the past few weeks momentum has been lost in peace efforts, reducing expectations and strengthening the status quo, leaving a dangerous and unstable situation.

President Obama’s early appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and his conciliatory Cairo speech to the Muslim world sparked optimism about prospects for a peace agreement. Later Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed for the first time, although in qualified terms, to the principle of creation of a Palestinian state. There was talk of reaching an agreement for peace within two years, before U.S. and Israeli election cycles limit negotiating room.

The issue that has become the focus of attention and controversy, as so often in the past, is the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements into the Palestinian territories.   The current U.S. position is  that it views settlements as “illegitimate”, that it believes settlement construction activity should “stop”, and that the “occupation” of Palestinian territories by Israel  that began in 1967 should “end”.  However, at a much anticipated meeting in September at the UN, President Obama, Netanyahu, and Abbas failed to achieve a positive result.   The President said comprehensive talks should proceed, even if there is not a complete stop in all settlement activity.

Palestinian negotiators have been unwilling to enter into negotiations as long as settlements continue to expand, especially in East Jerusalem.   The Palestinians have been here before.  During much of the 1990s as the Oslo “peace process” talks went on, construction of Israeli settlements expanded rapidly, creating “facts on the ground” at the expense of Palestinian territory.  The process resembled a slow motion invasion and displacement of one people by another.  For Palestinians Netanyahu’s offer to start talks now while settlements continue to expand resembles too much the failed formula of the past.

The call by the President for talks to begin without a settlement freeze and praise by Secretary Clinton of Israeli’s offer of “restraint” on settlement activity in the West Bank (but not in East Jerusalem)  means that for now the political pressure is off. There is no longer the incentive to make the hard decisions that will be required in any real peace agreement.  For now Israel can continue to expand settlements and displace Palestinians in East Jerusalem at little political cost.  

Matters were complicated by the release of the Goldstone report in October that detailed credible allegations of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza fighting in December 2008 and January 2009. Israel has said it cannot enter into peace negotiations while there are threats of sanctions against it.  The U.S. and others have called for independent, credible investigations of the allegations by Israel and the Palestinians, while seeking to eliminate the possibility of sanctions against Israel by keeping consideration of the report out of the UN Security Council.

It may be that the current constellation of political forces means that peace talks are just not feasible at this time.  The ability of the U.S. to bring about change is demonstrably limited. Both Israel and the Palestinians have political divisions that only they can heal. Recalling the failed Camp David summit in 2000, it should be clear that talks that are not adequately prepared and supported can backfire.

Meanwhile, Israeli government plans are continuing to surround the Old City of Jerusalem with a theme park and more settlements.  Ethnic pressures continue. According to the UN, some 103 Palestinian residences in East Jerusalem have been destroyed since Obama became President, leaving 581 persons homeless.

For now the U.S. seems without an actionable strategy for Israel-Palestine peace.  U.S. and Israeli failure to support creation of a viable Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem threatens the end of a democratic Jewish majority state of Israel with secure and recognized borders. Either there will be a new U.S. initiative that will change equations or inaction will lead to renewed violence.

There are several possibilities for U.S. action:

  • There could be Presidential speech putting forward detailed “suggestions” on terms of final status issues as President Clinton did in January 2001.
  • There could be a U.S. call for a regional security conference of Israel and the Arab states plus Turkey, much as the U.S. did after the first Gulf war in 1992.  It could promote the 2002 Arab peace plan that also was endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, including Iran.
  • The U.S. could support de facto an approach similar to the “Fayyad Plan” for bottom up economic, security and administrative development and capacity building by the Palestinian Authority for two years, leading to a stronger Palestinian entity that could negotiate more successfully with Israel on final status issues. Fayyad has suggested that if there is no peace agreement with Israel at the end of that time there could be a unilateral declaration of a sovereignty of Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders.

While we are in a policy pause for now, I expect some broad U.S. proposal early next year.  Obama has come up against harsh political realities, but justice, logic and the interests of all parties argue for progress. The President seems determined to persist.  Many remain unconvinced that an acceptable political formula can be found, and with good reason, but in time the perception may grow that there are no acceptable alternatives.

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