Middle East Forum meets in Washington to review peace efforts

May 10, 2002

While Congress was passing resolutions endorsing Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories and brushing aside objections from the Bush administration that such actions could undermine diplomatic efforts, church leaders meeting a few blocks away were hearing a very different kind of message.

Philip Wilcox, former consul general in East Jerusalem and U.S. State Department expert on counter-terrorism, told participants in the Middle East Forum that the relations between the United States and Israel are 'immensely complex,' based on a very close bond that is the product of culture and history--and some strong emotional commitments.

The forum is comprised of representatives from churches and church organizations who carry responsibility for shaping policy and strategies for a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict. About 125 attended the May 2-3 meeting in Washington, DC.

Wilcox sketched the deep frustration among Palestinians who assumed that the Oslo Accords of 1993 would produce a state. After Oslo, Israel continued to build settlements, regarded by many as an obstacle to any peace settlement or the emergence of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

As the violence escalated, Wilcox said that the U.S. made it clear that terrorism was an unacceptable political weapon, avoiding any consideration of violence as the symptom of deeper problems. He said that the so-called 'generous' Israeli proposal at Camp David, in the final days of the Clinton administration, was 'a proposal for Palestinian surrender' because the result would be a state on 42 percent of the land in the West Bank and Gaza, surrounded by Israeli settlements.

Addressing the causes of violence

But Arafat made an error in not trying to control the violence, Wilcox said, probably because he thought it was 'a winning strategy.' He alienated moderates and strengthened the hard-liners in Israel. Arafat did not have the kind of consensus that would allow him to crack down without some incentive.

'American policy was shortsighted in not addressing the causes, resulting in unbalanced policy,' he added. And the Arab nations in the region got nervous because street demonstrations against Israeli actions threatened their stability.

Arafat was released from his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah as the Middle East Forum convened, but Wilcox cautioned against an optimistic interpretation since 'Israel still remains on the scene exercising control.' He said that the Bush policy is still 'a work in progress.' Some are convinced that it is crucial to crush those who promote terrorism while others argue that it is also important to deal with the root causes of that terrorism.

Wilcox said that the conflict won't be resolved until there is 'substantial change in public opinion on both sides of the conflict.' The fear of the Israelis, and the despair of the Palestinians, have led to hardened positions where both sides seem to think that violence, not diplomacy, is the answer. 'A vision of peace among Palestinians could help them see that violence is not in their best interests--and it would encourage Arafat to curb the violence,' he said. 'A bold stroke by the United States is needed--but there is no sign that we are ready for that.' And Arafat won't be the enforcer for the Israelis 'unless there is a reward.' In response to a question, Wilcox said that United Nations resolutions provide the legal framework for peace but neither the U.S. nor Israel is likely to allow the United Nations to play a major role.

Jewish peace activists offer perspective

Two Jewish peace activists offered a different perspective. Louis Roth of Americans for Peace Now said that his organization provides a 'pro-Israeli, Zionist perspective,' not as a human rights organization but one that 'tries to provide some strategic options for Israel.' He warned that it would take 'patience and education' to end the conflict, adding that 'it is hard to understand the dynamics' that are at play.

Roth said that the recent spate of terrorism has pushed peace advocates to the right, both in the U.S. and Israel. 'The center has shifted' and Arafat 'has no credibility at all among Jews so they dismiss the negotiating process as an option. Because Israel feels that it is isolated and threatened, and it is focused on security, there is little talk of a peace process.' Yet he noted that the polls in Israel still show strong support for a two-state solution and dismantling some of the settlements. 'There is a deep schizophrenia in Israeli public opinion.'

Roth is convinced that 'engagement is the only intelligent option' and promoting the political process is the best way of helping both sides. The test is whether the Bush administration will 'stay in the game,' Roth said.

Administration regards Arafat as the problem

A delegation from the Middle East Forum met with John Hannah, deputy assistant for national security affairs and a chief advisor on Middle East issues for Vice President Dick Cheney. Emphasizing that the conflict is a 'terribly tragic and frustrating situation,' he said that the vice president returned from his recent visit to the region convinced that the U.S. must play a role, with the help of the international community.

Hannah said that the administration supports Israel's right to self-defense while recognizing that there is no military solution to the conflict. He added that the vice president is an advocate of developing cooperation among the Arab nations in seeking a resolution.

Pointing out that President George W. Bush is the first American president to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state as a matter of policy, Hannah said that the U.S. would not participate in the creation of a terrorist Palestinian state. 'We have an absolute dedication to peace and we are willing to take risks for peace.'

'There has been ample opportunity for Arafat to step forward and provide leadership but he has repeatedly failed to do so,' said Hannah. 'Arafat has never had the trust of Bush' and the U.S. had 'made a lot of efforts without any response from Arafat except more violence.' He said that the Arab states can be helpful, adding that the Arabs are saying that, if there is not a dependable Israeli partner in seeking peace, 'show us a dependable American partner.'

Israeli policy against Palestinian state

'Things are changing by the hour--usually not for the better but this is where the battle must be fought--in the United States, in Congress,' said Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Halper said that 'Israel wants to control the Occupied Territories forever.' He argued that 'Israel is looking for occupation by consent' by creating a mini-state or bantustan (a key element in South Africa's apartheid regime control over the black population). 'This is the common agenda of Israel.'

Halper said that 'a viable and sovereign Palestinian state was never in the cards. There is no toleration at all for an independent Palestinian state in the heart of Israel.' He displayed maps to demonstrate his point that 'Israel's occupation is subtle' but based on complete control of the region. The administrative levels of control, with its permits and regulations, determine where Palestinians can live and work, 'even what you can plant in your garden.' He described it as 'a thick web of controls laid over the Palestinians every day.'

Israel denies it is occupying the territories, Halper added, and therefore it is not subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention because 'it is not one sovereign power occupying another sovereign country.' They are administered territories, in the opinion of Israel, and therefore 'no accountability is necessary.' And the administrative layers of control deflect the political issues and create 'facts on the ground.'

The only issue for the Israelis, Halper said, is how large the bantustans should be, how much it will take to get rid of the Palestinians. He compared the situation to a prison where controls can be applied without using much actual space of the prison. 'Israel can cut the economic heart out of a Palestinian state by controlling the borders, the air space, water--permitting no freedom of movement.'

Halper said that Israel is convinced it has 'won' with its incursions into the West Bank, smashing the infrastructure that it says spawn terrorism, making it impossible to resist any more. For example, in Ramallah the Israeli Defense Force destroyed the civil infrastructure, making it impossible for the Palestinians to administer the region.

Israel also thinks it has won the war politically, Halper said. American support, especially the support of Congress, is 'Israel's trump card,' allowing it to 'thumb its nose at everyone.' As members of the forum prepared to meet with members of Congress, Halper urged them to stress that a just peace is the best interests of all parties.

Personal testimonies

'All violence is wrong because it doesn't promote transformation or bring newness of life,' said Jean Zaru of Ramallah, who described herself as 'a Palestinian Quaker, pacifist and peace activist.' In her emotional testimony, she said that she is finding it difficult 'to be sensitive to people who are insensitive to my existence.'

Zaru said that right-wing Christians regard other Christians as obstacles to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies about Israel's claims to the Holy Land. 'Don't be intimidated from telling them the truth--you have as much to lose as we do.'

In her 'cry of grief,' she also urged American Christians to 'penetrate the numbness of history,' arguing that 'the truth is one of the pillars in our search for peace.' She added that 'there is much that people must unlearn. We must work together to heal the past.'

The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, reported on the recent trip of religious leaders to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and West Bank. He described the group's participation in delivering food supplies to the Jenin refugee camp where recent incursions by Israeli forces created a great deal of damage and loss of life. He said that many of the refugees were now refugees all over again.

In conversations with the president of Syria and the king of Jordan, the group left with a 'sliver of hope' because the role of a faith-based accompaniment program received support. Edgar, a former six-term member of Congress, said that 'we need to learn to lobby.'

Most participants in the Middle East Forum did exactly that, spending the final day in meetings with their senators and representatives, talking with legislative aides, and articulating their concerns for the peace efforts . The appointments came the day after both houses overwhelmingly approved non-binding resolutions supporting the recent actions of the Israeli government.

During debriefing sessions following the legislative appointments, many participants reported that senators and representatives claimed to have voted for the measure without enthusiasm, recognizing that their Arab-American constituents are increasingly vocal.

Those making visits on the Hill also noted that in the wake of the post-September 11 anthrax scare the Congressional mail rooms are running very slow and that elected officials reported such volumes of both faxes and emails that messages from constituents often go unread. Legislative aides urged the members of the Middle East Forum to communicate by telephone calls and seek follow-up appointments within their home districts.

The appointments with members of Congress were preceded by briefings organized by Corinne Whitlatch, director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and followed by the debriefings under the leadership of Anna Rhee and James Wetekam. Rhee directs the CMEP grass roots program and Wetekam heads the group's media project.