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June 29, 2012Jeff Walton
Panelists at the Churches for Middle East Peace Advocacy Conference were discouraged that Palestinians had given up on the peace process, and that Israel could tolerate the status quo. (Photo credit: Jeff Walton / IRD)
Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing despair and cynicism that threatens any movement towards resolving their dispute, according to speakers at a recent conference of churches that advocate for Middle East peace, often in a way that is critical of Israel.
“There is despair that occupation is institutionalized” and “can’t change,” reported Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) Executive Director Warren Clark. The retired U.S. ambassador cited “great disagreement” on both sides of the ongoing dispute, alongside continued division amongst Palestinians.
Members of the church coalition convened June 18-19 at the Catholic University of America and a subsequent prayer breakfast at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Approximately 100 people took part in the annual advocacy conference, a smaller turnout than the previous year. The conference concluded with participants visiting members of Congress and staff to lobby for policies that they believed would promote a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The coalition of churches, which includes 24 Mainline Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic groups, has been accused by detractors as having an anti-Israel bias. Critics have said CMEP focuses on a path to peace centered on Israeli concessions and overlooking Palestinian transgressions.
Taking written questions from the gathered activists, panelists were asked what the role of a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) strategy against Israel might be, and if the church coalition might find willing partners in their Middle East peace advocacy among evangelical Christians.
“The status quo is acceptable to Israeli society,” reported Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, explaining that a fear of international pariah status “could make BDS a game changer.” While Brown hastened to add that he was not an activist, he did see reason why BDS “could have positive effect.” The university professor cautioned the group that non-violent protest actions like BDS “look great in retrospect, but at the time it is gritty and ugly” provoking “nasty verbal and conceivably violent responses.”
Maryann Cusimano-Love of the Catholic University of America offered that Israeli business leaders want their country to be “the next Hong Kong,” but that “it’s not going to happen as-is.”
Speaking at the luncheon plenary, Aziz Abu-Sarah, co-Executive Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, described that he was “not in favor of BDS” but was in favor of more narrowly tailored actions that targeted West Bank settlements.
“We [CMEP] have no position on BDS,” noted Clark, “We operate by consensus – individual members have their own position.”
As for Evangelicals, Cusimano-Love noted that they were presently heavily engaged in combatting HIV AIDS, debt relief, and human trafficking. Evangelicals, the Catholic University professor hypothesized, could be involved with CMEP’s efforts “if they see that not just Jewish people are suffering.”
One participant complained of the influence of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Abu-Sarah turned the comment around, observing that AIPAC had been successfully fundraising and growing membership. “We have to work a lot harder instead of complaining about other lobbies,” he said. “To get stronger.”
“They [AIPAC] have engaged a lot of communities,” Abu-Sarah reported. “It’s not true that AIPAC is a Jewish Lobby. There are more Christians that are part of AIPAC than there are Jews. There is way more money from Christian sources.”
“We have to change public opinion and get more people interested here,” Abu-Sarah concluded.
Clark moderated a panel discussion on regional concerns in which some participants were outright despondent.
“I think the situation is grim and going to get worse,” assessed Brown. “There is no viable diplomatic process.”
National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi even suggested that Iran had become less involved in disrupting Middle East peace efforts “because there is no peace process to sabotage.”
Brown offered that both sides of the conflict would gladly accept a two-state solution if they thought it would resolve the conflict. Public opinion polls, however, revealed that both the Israeli and Palestinian populaces did not believe such a development would bring peace.
Brown affirmed that Palestinian Authority (PA) officials wanted a two-state solution but were unaware how to reach one. Possessing “very little domestic legitimacy,” the PA rules undemocratically, does not speak for Gaza or the Palestinian diaspora and “can’t quite lead,” according to Brown. The university professor also noted the complicating factor of Gaza being led by Hamas, and not accepting Israel’s existence.
“The whole dream of Palestinian statehood has receded,” Brown summarized, starting that Palestinian society as a whole was “disinvesting” from politics and public affairs.
In contrast to the Palestinian situation, Brown asserted that the de-facto situation was not desirable for Israelis, but was tolerable for them. Elections, Brown suggested, would require government to change, and be responsive to people.
“Hamas would act differently if it had to face elections,” Brown claimed, noting that new elections were unlikely in the near future due to the fracturing of Palestinian leadership.
In contrast to Brown’s pessimistic appraisal, Cusimano-Love took solace in broader world affairs, observing that the number of major armed conflicts with 1,000 or more combat deaths has dropped by half in the past 20 years.
“Peace is breaking out around the world,” Cusimano-Love reported, adding that the “challenge is to learn from success to heal intransigent conflicts” like the Israeli-Palestinian one.
If states are frozen, non-state actors need to be leveraged and mobilized to push for peace, Cusimano-Love advised, asking the gathered church activists who the “unlikely allies for peace” might be.
“We believe in miracles: nothing is impossible with God,” the Catholic University Professor stated. Pointing to Jesus Christ as a model for peace building, Cusimano-Love named His unlikely partners: centurions, tax collectors, prostitutes, what she termed “new constituents for a new model of peace.” In the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute, these might be retired military officials weary of conflict, women, and youth.
Brown came to some agreement with Cusimano-Love, concluding that church advocacy groups would need to get populations involved to reconfigure the situation.
“Rebuilding building blocks cannot be done by existing political leaders,” Brown stated flatly.
In a later lunchtime plenary talk, Foundation for Middle East Peace President Phil Wilcox asserted that “both Israeli and Palestinian societies are democratic” and that “this will require a project to change Israeli public opinion.”
Israelis, claimed Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, do not realize what they’ve given up to maintain the occupation.
“The stories aren’t anti-Israel, the facts are anti-Israeli policies,” Friedman claimed of media reports about the conflict.
In contrast to the previous year’s advocacy conference, panelists were much more subdued about the “Arab Spring” revolutions.
“We had democratic transition process that then died,” Brown observed of Egypt. Asserting that the outcome of what happens in Egypt will affect the Middle East, the International Relations professor warned that it could be a “full-blown conflict” between military forces and Islamists.
Brown’s view did not match up with Abu-Sarah’s comments at the later luncheon plenary session.
“Watching the Arab Spring and thinking ‘we can do that here’ is exciting,” Abu-Sarah said of how Palestinians viewed the political changes sweeping the region.
Parsi, who has appeared at previous CMEP conferences, returned to argue against additional sanctions against Iran. Iranians, he claimed, were extremely likely to retaliate if oil sanctions moved ahead. Both the West and Iran were limited to “narrow and dangerous” escalation options that he termed a “tit-for-tat.”
Escalation, Parsi offered, was always justified by officials in Iran and the West as “we have to show other side that we are serious.”
The Iranian-American interpreted Iran’s strategy as to prevent fighting another war on Iranian borders, instead investing heavily in military and political proxies.
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