The outbreak of renewed violence this summer in the Middle East carried with it a sense of tragic inevitability. Even among many people strongly committed to peacemaking, bloodshed in the region is often met with sorrowful resignation—“there they go again”—as if nothing can ever be done to prevent warfare in the area.
There were dire warnings of the danger of the war spreading far beyond the Middle East. Could this be the spark, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked, of World War III? Or worse: Some on the apocalypse-watch wing of the Christian right saw in the Israel-Lebanon fighting the seeds of Armageddon.
While civilian deaths multiplied—most of them in Lebanon, which suffered casualties at a rate 10 times that of Israel, along with the destruction of much of its civilian infrastructure—world leaders could not agree on whether or how to call for a halt to the fighting. The U.S., for its part, refused to push Israel (which it backs to the tune of $3 billion-plus per year) to end the attacks against targets throughout Lebanon—and, not surprising, Hezbollah’s supporters in Iran and Syria were ever-ready to add fuel to the fire.
In the midst of the tragedy, it is difficult to move beyond outrage and anger, let alone find any signs of hope.
But a small glimmer began to emerge in the midst of the carnage. The initial conversation centered on achieving a cease-fire in the daily barrage of rockets and airstrikes between Israel and Lebanon. But it was impossible to talk about a cease-fire without acknowledging that this war didn’t begin with the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, or even with the Israeli pullout from Lebanon six years ago. The roots of the conflict in the Middle East, of course, go back centuries—and any genuine, lasting solution must deal not only with the contemporary realities but the complicated heritage of two peoples on one land.
Perhaps the most heartening sign in an otherwise discouraging situation is the growing number of voices, across the political spectrum, saying that these deeper, more profound issues must finally be addressed. On the left, Tikkun magazine and the Shalom Center have called for an international Middle East peace conference to “impose a just, equitable, and lasting settlement.” Voices from the right, including George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, have laid out plans for a “comprehensive settlement of the root cause of today’s turmoil.” While it would be undoubtedly premature to call it a “consensus,” the breadth of support for a comprehensive peace creates an opportunity to actually achieve progress toward a just peace in the region.
Serious questions, of course, remain unsettled. These range from the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to the Arab world entering into full normal relations with Israel. They include the establishment of a viable Palestinian state along 1967 borders—a goal that is in serious jeopardy due to the “separation wall” that Israel is constructing, mostly on Palestinian lands—and the establishment of Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states. The bottom line is that both Israel and Palestine must be safe, secure, and peaceful—or neither will ever be.
“Peace processes”—from Camp David to the Oslo agreements and the “road map”—have come and gone over the years. There have been positive achievements—for instance, Jordan and Egypt have established meaningful accords with Israel—and discouraging setbacks. But the world cannot allow the setbacks to either determine the course of action or prevent progress from being made.
Real progress toward peace in the Middle East is not the sole responsibility of the Israelis and Palestinians, or even the other actors in the area. For many reasons, peace in this critical crossroads of civilization must be the responsibility of the whole international community—and the United States must play the key leadership role in that effort. But the U.S. must take a significantly different approach than it has in the past if it is to constructively play the part of midwife in the birth of a “new Middle East,” as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it. The U.S. must not only make Middle East peace a high priority, it must do so as an “honest broker,” and not just as a backer of one side in the dispute, as it has been for so many years. It must not only stand for the peace and security of Israel, but for the peace and security of Palestine and all its neighbors as well.
Making progress toward a comprehensive peace will never be easy. Extremists on all sides will seek to scuttle any forward movement, out of fear, mistrust, and long-standing hatred. But that only makes the task more important—and the active, unwavering support of committed people of faith essential.
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.