[Episcopal News Service] Positing that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is broken, at best, 120 members of Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 24 organizations and denominations to which the Episcopal Church belongs, gathered June 18 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to seek a new way forward.
CMEP, which has worked since 1984 to encourage U.S. policies that promote the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is well familiar with obstacles on the path to peace: An increasing sense that the occupation is being institutionalized and rising pessimism about the viability of a two-state solution are just the most recent in a long series of frustrations and setbacks.
But while it sometimes appears that progress has stalled, CMEP’s executive director Warren Clark said, those who follow the conflict closely know that “there’s a great deal going on all the time.”
And, he added, “There’s always the possibility of surprises.”
The two-day conference, which included workshops on a variety of topics and a day of advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill to address CMEP’s concerns — among these safeguarding Palestinian financial aid, ensuring Jerusalem is a shared city, and preserving the Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land – looked both at the present reality and at ways the paradigm might shift.
It centered around two panel discussions, “Iran and Middle East Peace,” which examined the regional context, and “Perspectives for Peace,” which offered insights from Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, and Aziz Abu-Sarah, co-executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
Addressing the current state of affairs, Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said he believes the existing peace process is dead.
Israeli leadership is served by the status quo, he said, and Palestinian leadership does not know how to move forward. The upcoming U.S. elections and tensions with Iran further complicate the situation.
“The whole dream of Palestinian statehood is beginning to recede,” he said. “The current situation is not tolerable; the idea of statehood is not really meaningful anymore. Right now there is one state – Israel – that controls this territory.”
Palestinian elections could help shift the stalemate, he said, as would a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, but the population has become divested from politics and there are many obstacles to holding elections.
“When working with existing leadership is not working, you have to get other populations involved,” he said.
When government processes fail, said Maryann Cusimano-Love, associate professor of international relations at Catholic University, “we need to leverage and mobilize non-state actors and form unlikely alliances for peace.”
Unlikely alliances that have led to breakthroughs in other situations include the coalition of business leaders who helped usher out apartheid in South Africa; medical groups who spoke out against landmines; and conservative groups in the U.S. who championed the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa she said.
“As people of faith, we have a very unique capacity to build, sustain and shape these unlikely partnerships,” she said. “Jesus literally gave us the model for peace building — working through unlikely partners, among them tax collectors and fishermen. We have to follow that model today.”
It is important to note that there has been much progress, she said. There has been a resurgence of Palestinian nonviolent resistance movements and a string of advocacy successes, among these the revocation of the hold on U.S. aid to Palestine in 2011 and the release of the American hikers held in Iran last September (former Bishop of Washington John Bryson Chane had a hand in obtaining their freedom).
“As people of faith we must challenge world-weary cynics who canonize our despair,” she said. “Despair is easy; hope is hard. Hope is both our calling and our vocation as peace builders. The challenge for us today is how to leverage and learn from this record of success.”
“If you’ve tried to do something for 20 years and it doesn’t work, it’s quite stupid to try it over and over,” said Aziz Abu-Sarah. “For Palestinians it’s obvious that Israelis are not going to make those decisions, so Palestinians need to look not at what Israel does but at what we can do to make a difference. … If we wait for Israel to wake up one day and decide to give us a state and end the occupation – they might not do that.” Likewise, he said, “It doesn’t work to leave it only in U.S. hands.”
If a two-state solution is abandoned, he added, “we will be struggling for one state and equal rights.”
This, Clark had said earlier, would ultimately spell the end of the Jewish state: “The only way to preserve Israel is to create Palestine.”
“I don’t think Israelis today realize what we’re giving up in order to maintain the occupation,” Friedman said, stressing that the failure of a two-state solution would be “not a solution but an outcome.”
“I want Israel to be strong,” she said. “I want it to have a strong army. I want to be sure there isn’t an attack on Tel Aviv. But that isn’t enough. Because Israel is a state that I love.”
And loving Israel means helping it to make peace with its neighbor, she said.
“This is about conscience,” she said. “This is about the interests of the people in the Holy Land. This is about the interest of the U.S. in it. I think that’s a desperately important message you’re bringing.”
On June 19, following a prayer breakfast at the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, CMEP members took part in around 80 scheduled meetings with government representatives.
‘Home Front’ videos available from CMEP
Home Front: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah, is a series of four eight-minute videos about a contested neighborhood in East Jerusalem produced by Just Vision, for which CMEP has developed a discussion guide geared toward a Christian audience.
The videos tell the story of a Palestinian teenager forced to share his house with settlers; an American-born Israeli who gets drawn into the demonstrations after her daughter’s arrest; a Palestinian community organizer who brings women to the forefront of the struggle; and an Israeli army veteran who becomes a leader of the campaign.
The videos are ideal for adult forums, which typically last around 45 minutes, said the Rev. Doris Warrell, a Methodist minister and CMEP field director. They are available to steam online. Copies may be ordered or screenings arranged: contact email@example.com.
“Each one has an introduction. Each one is self-contained. You can change the order of them,” Warrell said. “You could watch all four but CMEP recommends you select one or two and then talk about it.”