The Common Good
August 2005

The Urgency of Middle East Peace

by Jim Wallis | August 2005

Palestinian grievances are real and justified. So are Israeli fears.

If Americans could see what all Palestinians face at Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza virtually every day,

If Americans could see what all Palestinians face at Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza virtually every day, most would think it was wrong. But they never even hear about it in the U.S. media. If they could see what I have seen - the daily humiliation and harassment of Palestinians, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the deliberate Israeli military attacks aimed at civilian areas, I believe the American sense of right and wrong would call it morally reprehensible.

And if American parents had to live with the fear that Israeli parents do every day - that they or their sons and daughters might be blown up at any moment in a shopping mall, restaurant, or school bus by terrorist attacks that target civilians and even children - most would understand the fear that leads many Israeli citizens to support the repressive policies of their government. They might better understand how reasonable Israeli fears of militant Palestinian violence might lead them to put their trust in the illusive security of separation walls and to support the brutal military occupation of Palestinian territory.

The death of Yasser Arafat and the promise of new Palestinian leadership, the influence of realists among the Israeli elites, the pressure of the British government on the White House, the growing hunger in the Middle East for democracy, and the heroic leadership for peace from both Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers - all point to the possibilities of this moment. It is a moment that must not be lost.

Palestinian grievances are real and justified. So are Israeli fears. A corrupt Palestinian leadership that tolerated and even supported terrorism has been replaced by a new one that holds the promise of turning away from the path of violence to the path of genuine political negotiation. A hard-line Israeli government that has brought neither security nor peace for Israelis and seems to have few ideas beyond continued repression and obstruction might be pressured to accept a real peace settlement. The old approaches have failed, and new approaches are being called for from peacemakers on both sides and from an international community weary of living with the continued consequences of this most difficult of conflicts. Terrorism is a failed political strategy, but the pain and fear of it is felt by almost everybody now. We are hungry for a solution in the Middle East that would make the prospects of peace everywhere more possible.

A REAL SOLUTION will include these ingredients: 1) A new Palestinian leadership, like that of South Africans who battled against apartheid, must reject the course of terrorism against innocent people and opt for a serious nonviolent and political struggle to secure the justice they deserve. 2) The Israeli leadership must recognize that only a solution that grants security and sovereignty to both Israelis and Palestinians will ever produce peace.

Clearly, we need new leadership on both sides. When I last spoke in Jerusalem at a peace conference, several people said, "We need a Palestinian Nelson Mandela to shake hands with an Israeli F.W. DeKlerk." Arafat was no Mandela, and Sharon is no DeKlerk. Short of new leaders, we will need old leaders behaving differently. There are some Palestinian leaders who have consistently called for a nonviolent struggle (such as Naim Ateek, profiled in this issue), but their wisdom has not been heeded by Palestinian political leaders. And there are courageous Israeli voices for peace, but they have been arrested more often than listened to by the ruling authorities.

The right-wing Christian Zionists who believe a greater Israel and a purged Palestinian population to be critical for the fulfillment of their fundamentalist theology must also be defeated - both theologically and politically. The role of the American Religious Right must be named as a primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and more-moderate Christians must speak out and come together with Jews and Muslims to back a fair and just two-state solution.

International pressure must be brought to bear on the Palestinian leadership to reject terrorism and to discipline terrorist organizations, and on the Israeli government to abandon its aggressive occupation policy in the West Bank and to begin seriously negotiating a just peace solution. Both the Palestinian and Israeli extremes are clear obstacles to a lasting peace.

Some churches, from U.S. denominations to the worldwide Anglican communion, are engaged in difficult debates (including with their longtime Jewish allies and friends) about strategies such as selective sanctions against companies that directly support and make possible the Israeli occupation of the West Bank - proposals raised by some of the authors in this issue. That debate must be carefully balanced between the need to support the existence and security of Israel while at the same time advocating justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people - two just causes that have always been among the most difficult in history to keep in balance. Sincere advocates of Palestinian justice and Israeli security are debating whether sanctions are part of the solution or could make matters worse. If sanctions are chosen they must be carefully and strategically targeted to affect one cause while not hurting the other, and they should begin with a dialogue with the offending corporations, as many are already doing.

The U.S. role in seeking a Middle East peace is absolutely crucial but has yet to become fair and balanced. The consistent American tilt toward Israel has caused the United States to regularly neglect, and even undermine, the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. That must change if peace is finally to be found. And the American religious community has a critical role in the process. Those from the Abrahamic faith traditions - Christians, Jews, and Muslims - must help lead the way. Nothing could be more daunting, or important, than that.

We offer this issue of Sojourners as a small contribution toward these goals by highlighting the views of some of the most courageous of Middle East peacemakers - both Israelis and Palestinians who are passionately and urgently committed to finding a solution. An American Jewish leader whose wisdom I trust tells me he thinks we are running out of time and need to find a solution soon - very soon.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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