Obama's Cairo speech, peacemaking efforts welcomed by U.S. Christian leaders

Two-state solution in Israel/Palestine reaffirmed
June 3, 2009

A diverse group of U.S. Christian leaders has written to President Barack Obama following his historic June 4 speech in Cairo saying they stand ready to support "robust U.S. peacemaking efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace."

Signed by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and more than 50 Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical and African American church leaders, the open ecumenical letter to Obama noted that "after decades of tragic conflict, many Israelis and Palestinians despair of the possibility of peace, yet with your determined leadership we believe the promise of two viable, secure and independent states can be realized."

Obama's speech formed part of his first official visit to the Middle East and followed several weeks of intense U.S. diplomacy with Arab and Israeli leaders in Washington, D.C. Delivered to a predominantly Muslim audience at Cairo University, his address tackled global concerns such as violent extremism, the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development and opportunity.

Addressing what he called a "major source of tension" between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world, Obama reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution and said that America will align its policies with those who pursue peace. "We cannot impose peace," he said. "But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true."

For peace to be realized, Obama said, "Palestinians must abandon violence … At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's."

Obama also noted that the United States "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," whose construction, he said, "violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

During one of his high-level meetings in Washington on May 18, Obama urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to grasp a "historic opportunity" to make peace with the Palestinians and to halt the building of Jewish settlements.

The Christian leaders noted in their statement that "continued settlement growth and expansion are rapidly diminishing any possibility for the creation of a viable Palestinian state" and that "the targeting of Israeli civilians through ongoing rocket fire and the insistent rejection by some of Israel's right to exist reinforces the destructive status quo."

The letter added that these actions, "along with the route of the separation barrier, movement restrictions, and continued home demolitions, serve to undermine Palestinians and Israelis alike who seek peace."

During his Cairo speech, Obama said that Israel must "live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society."

While Israel withdrew its military and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it continues to maintain control over entry into the Palestinian territory via land, air, and sea. Israel's blockade of Gaza and its military offensive in January have created critical fuel and food shortages resulting in a humanitarian crisis throughout the territory. Israeli officials have said the blockade and military action have been necessary to pressure militant Palestinians to stop firing rockets into southern Israel.

Obama said that while the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza "devastates Palestinian families," it also "does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress."

In their letter to Obama, the Christian leaders said, "While working to end rocket attacks against the people of southern Israel, the U.S. should also seek immediate relief for the population of Gaza -- living in rubble and without basic necessities -- by ending restrictions on humanitarian goods and opening the borders to reconstruction material, commerce and transit in a secure manner."

Obama insisted that America will not turn its back "on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires."

The ecumenical letter also noted the plight of the Palestinian Christian community, whose numbers continue to dwindle, especially as younger generations flee the region to escape the hostilities and in search of greater opportunities.

"In the birthplace of our faith, one of the world's oldest Christian communities is dwindling rapidly, and with them the possibility of a day when three thriving faith communities live in shared peace in Jerusalem," the letter said. "Now is the time for immediate and bold American leadership. Fruitful diplomacy will require U.S. engagement with a Palestinian unity government committed to peace with the state of Israel."

The Christian leaders cited the "current political stalemate" and "declining situation on the ground" as demonstrating that Israelis and Palestinians "cannot reach a negotiated agreement without a strong, helping hand.

"We urge your Administration to present proposals that go beyond the mere principle of two states and lay out a just and equitable solution that provides dignity, security and sovereignty for both peoples," the leaders continued. "Moreover, we commend your strong support for a comprehensive peace and we agree that the Arab Peace Initiative, with its offer of recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation, should be utilized in a regional effort."

Obama noted that "for decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."

According to reports, Obama's comments drew praise from Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas but a skeptical response from Hamas, the Islamist militant movement which controls Gaza. The Israeli government said it hopes Obama's speech will lead to a "new era of reconciliation."

Concluding the portion of his speech about Israeli/Palestinian issues, Obama said: "Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer."

The Christian leaders commended Obama's message to the people of the Middle East "and your vision for a more peaceful world. We are grateful that you have identified resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top priority and we ask that you now demonstrate your Administration's commitment to sustained, hands-on diplomacy -- to provide a clear framework for an end to the conflict, to help Israelis and Palestinians make the difficult decisions necessary to achieve lasting peace, and to hold both parties to account when they fail to honor their commitments."

Acknowledging the tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world, Obama said that he had come to Cairo to "seek a new beginning … one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."