Presidents' Plans and Precedents for Peace in the Middle East | Sojourners

Presidents' Plans and Precedents for Peace in the Middle East

090923-israel-palestineSeveral sources have recommended this commentary by M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters as a helpful analysis of the new "Obama Peace Plan" for the Middle East. Like any proposed compromise, it is imperfect, but overall it's a hopeful movement past the current stalemate.

Any discussion of Middle East peace brings to mind one of the myths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Arabs and Jews are, have been, and always will be locked in an intractable, centuries-old violent conflict that can never be resolved short of the Messiah's return (or arrival, if you're Jewish). Obviously, there have been wars and conflicts between these two peoples, of which the current struggle over land in Israel and Palestine is a global focal point. But there have also been centuries of coexistence, and many contemporary examples of shared struggle for peace.

This was something I learned during my last visit to the region last year. I visited a former Palestinian village called Miska, long displaced by Israeli farmland. As I blogged shortly afterwards:

We went there with an elderly former resident who told how she once was neighbors and playmates with Jews who lived in the area before World War II. But in 1948, as the new Israeli military established control in the region, they forced her family to flee. Those friendships with Jews helped her family later, however, when they were about to be displaced yet again. The head of a Jewish family they had known had become a high-ranking military officer, and was able to get them permission to stay in their new village rather than be forced out yet again.

The organization that sponsors such tours is an Israeli group called Zochrot, Hebrew for "remembering." Their sole mission is to partner with Palestinian refugees to tell their history of the nakba, or "disaster" of being forced from their land that Israelis simultaneously celebrate as their gaining of an independent state.

This came to mind this week because of a post I saw on the Waging Nonviolence blog:

PBS aired a documentary last night called Among the Righteous that attempts to answer the question: Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust? The answer, as the PBS narrator puts it, "might change how Arabs view the Holocaust and how Arabs and Jews view each other."

Since it was established in 1953 by the Knesset, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, has recognized some 20,000 non-Jews. None of the names, however, are Arab. But as this documentary shows, many Arabs did help Jews in parts of Nazi-occupied Tunisia.

These histories and stories need to be told more often to expand the imagination of what is possible, both for the parties in conflict as well as those advocating for peace from the outside. And speaking of 'waging nonviolence,' I've been encouraged that nonviolent activism by Palestinians is getting more and more mainstream coverage. The only way that such movements will gain traction and support -- both among Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community -- is for those efforts to get as much profile as acts of violence. This is difficult in the "if it bleeds it leads" mentality of mainstream media, so it feels like progress when it gets good coverage in The New York Times:

With both diplomacy and armed struggle out of favor for having failed to end the Israeli occupation, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, joined by the business community, is trying to forge a third way: to rouse popular passions while avoiding violence. ...

On Palm Sunday, the Israeli police arrested 15 Palestinians in Bethlehem who were protesting the difficulty of getting to Jerusalem because of a security closing. Abbas Zaki, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, was arrested, prompting demonstrations the next day. Some Palestinians are also rejecting V.I.P. cards handed out by Israelis allowing them to pass quickly through checkpoints.

Palestinian political analysts say it is too early to assess the prospects of the nonviolent approach. Generally, they say, given the division between Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority here, nothing is likely to change without a political shakeup and unified leadership. Still, they say, popular resistance, combined with institution-building and international appeals, is gaining notice among Palestinians.

Simultaneously discouraging, however, is the continued intransigence of the Israeli government's policy of settlement construction, which continues to displace Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, as well as the Palestinian Authority's recent honoring of terrorists. One forces people from their homes in violation of international law and creates further "facts on the ground" as obstacles to peace; the other further entrenches a glorification of violence in a region in desperate need of better options.

Peace is not impossible, but without visionary leadership from all sides, it will remain elusive. But new movements, however imperfect, are a step in the right direction.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at