The Common Good
November-December 1996

Tunnel Vision

by Marie Dennis | November-December 1996

Netanyahu undercuts the peace process

The explosion of violence in the Middle East this September was illuminating. The fact that Israel's opening of an already existing tunnel could trigger this level of violence exposes the depth of brokenness between the Palestinians and Israelis-a fact not to be obscured by genuine progress made in the peace process to that point.

That brokenness won't be healed by any merely superficial measures. The wounds will continue to fester unless the parties begin truly to address the roots of the division.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems intent on avoiding just that. His insistence on keeping the new tunnel open despite the obvious provocation it caused is a trifle compared to his refusal to honor the basic tenets of the Oslo peace accords-in particular, the agreement to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron, which was to have been accomplished eight months ago.

Netanyahu's tunnel fiasco also underscores the profound importance to Middle East peace of negotiating a shared solution to Jerusalem, a Holy City not only for Jews but for Christians and Muslims as well; a center not only for Israeli national life, but for that of Palestinians as well. The needs of all these parties must be honored if we are ever to move beyond a hair-trigger truce in the city.

Before the September crisis, steps toward peace, though slow and halting, were real. The city of Ramallah, for example, had been slowly coming back to life. In the aftermath of its transfer from Israeli control to that of the Palestinian Authority, those who live in that used-to-be-resort and university town had noted a decided resurgence of Palestinian life. Shops and restaurants, parks and sidewalks-once tensed for confrontation during the years of open hostility-had begun to hope for a return to "normalcy." Something similar might be said of Jericho and of some other areas now formally under Palestinian control in the West Bank.

Palestinian elections were held and, with significant international assistance, a new Palestinian National Authority began to function. Some energy, for a change, turned toward the resolution of crucial development and environmental issues. Israeli-Palestinian cooperation had also developed in some positive directions. For example, an increasing number of joint scientific projects had been initiated, some of them building on processes started during the Madrid negotiations.

SADLY, THE OBSTACLES to peace were real as well: Violence-deeply imbedded in both communities, resting up against the fragile pylons of the peace process-was ready to break it apart. Ideologically driven terrorists on both sides have blown away the lives of those with whom they disagreed, along with scores of innocents and often themselves-providing ample excuse for the continuation of an Israeli police state and for the formation of a Palestinian Authority that has carried out disturbingly repressive actions.

The Israeli defense forces have been perpetually present at checkpoints on the perimeter of Palestinian territories, controlling every movement of both Christian and Muslim Palestinians too long denied access to sacred sites or education, health care or work. Unemployment in the Palestinian community, by some counts, reached 70 percent. The Palestinian security forces have themselves failed to establish procedures for arrest, detention, and trial that respect the rights of the accused.

The creeping incursion of Israeli settlements throughout the region-their "ooze" toward Palestinian village after village on the West Bank; their slow but steady expansion within and near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem; their increasingly threatening presence in Hebron and Gaza-had also managed to keep the Palestinians "on alert" for a once-again-destroyed peace. This brilliant Israeli strategy by which civilian communities, "pioneer" families, simply move onto and occupy already occupied land stretched the parameters of the peace accord even as it was being crafted. Now the practice of "settling," for a while officially (though never in practice) halted, has been resurrected as official policy.

The U.S. presence in this process has been mixed. While President Clinton deserves commendation for bringing the parties to the table, his refusal during an election year to criticize (and, presumably, put behind-the-scenes pressure on) Netanyahu-despite the prime minister's hard-line obstructions of the peace process-undermines hopes for genuine progress.

The congressional role has been even more damaging. Congressional appropriators year after year unashamedly give a lion's share of our dwindling foreign aid budget to Israel-despite the expansion of settlements and other violations of the peace accords. The same members of Congress obstruct funds for the Palestinian Authority, claiming that the Palestinians had not lived up to their commitments in the accord.

If a lasting and just accord is crafted between the Israelis and Palestinians, it will be accomplished by the unwavering commitment to peace of a majority of those two peoples, despite partisan maneuvering in the United States. But U.S. citizens cannot ignore our responsibility in the mix.

MARIE DENNIS, associate for Latin America in the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office, visited the Middle East in July. Maryknoll is one of many church organizations that constitute "Churches for Middle East Peace," which seeks a negotiated sharing of Jerusalem by Israelis and Palestinians that respects the rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Contact CMEP at (202) 546-8425.

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