MORE INFO: Questions and Answers about Major Issues in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

November 17, 2011

Note that this list is by no means intended as a comprehensive guide to issues surrounding the conflict. As we have addressed three major issues in recent weeks - the negotiations process, American aid to the Palestinians, and the status of Jerusalem - our desire here is to offer brief commentary on some of the other issues on your minds and ours, and some of the areas that might serve as the basis for future EPPN actions in the coming weeks and months.

In his May speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Obama identified borders and security as the two major initial challenges for negotiations. What did he mean by this?
It is commonly held that "final status" negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must address four major areas: borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees. The President believes that if the first two are addressed initially, it will allow the parties to make progress toward one another that will make the second two issues easier to address as negotiations progress.

What are the major issues surrounding borders?
In 1967, following the end of the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors, Israel occupied several territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which previously were occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (which previously was occupied by Egypt). Since that time, the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in those territories has been a major focus in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the intervening 44 years, however, Israeli annexations of land within these territories have greatly diminished the footprint of land available for a future Palestinian state. Thus, President Obama in May emphasized the important principle, which the Episcopal Church long has supported, that the 1967 borders should be the basis for negotiations. To address areas of Israeli annexation over the past four decades, there would need to be, as the President said, some land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state in order to assure fairness. Of critical importance, however, is the contiguity of Palestinian land. In order for a sovereign state to be viable, it must have the ability to allow its citizens to travel freely around that land.

What about security?
Israel has a legitimate right to be worried about its future security. The history of the past six-and-one-half decades has been one of belligerence against Israel by her neighbors, and rocket fire from within the Gaza Strip is an ongoing reality. In the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, Arab leaders offered the prospect of recognition of Israel and peaceful coexistence in exchange for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along certain parameters, but Israeli leaders remain distrustful of whether peace will be a reality. Changes in the region over the past year have brought renewed hostility to Israel from neighboring states, and the Palestinian political reconciliation announced earlier this year increased Israeli fears that one of the partners of that reconciliation - Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and to condemn violence - will diminish the Palestinian Authority's repeated condemnations of violence and recognition of the Israeli state. (Despite being announced this spring, few details about what political reconciliation would mean in practice have emerged in the intervening months.) Some Arab leaders say that recognition of Israel will only come in exchange for a Palestinian state. This is not an appropriate approach. The Episcopal Church's resolutions are clear that recognition of Israel, her right to exist, and her security are not up for debate. They are a necessity for peace to happen, not a reward for peace happening. President Obama is correct that, just as the borders of a Palestinian state must be an immediate focal point in the peace process, so must Israeli security.

At the same time, the security of a future Palestinian state must be assured. Just as Israel's neighbors must respect her right to exist and end all forms of belligerence, so too must Israel be fully committed to respecting the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state, allowing Palestinian leaders to exercise all of the security functions to which a state is entitled, and cooperating with Palestinian leaders equally in the protection of borders and the enforcement of order between two states. Certain suggestions by Israeli leaders, like Prime Minister Netanyahu's suggestion that the Israeli army remain in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank even after the creation of a Palestinian state, are not consistent with respect for Palestinian sovereignty over the security of a future state.

What about the rights of Palestinian refugees?
This is one of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In 1947, the United Nations offered a plan for the partition of historic Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while Arab leaders rejected in. The following year, when the British mandate for the governance of Palestine expired, Israel declared independence and was subsequently attacked by its neighboring Arab states. The result was a war that led to Israel having far more territory than it would have under the original partition plan offered by the UN. As a result of this rapid shifting of territory to Israeli sovereignty, many Palestinians fled or were evicted from towns and villages where they had lived for generations or longer. These Palestinians have a right to return to their land or else be compensated for the losses they suffered, but the question of how this would work in practice has vexed Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for decades. The connection of all people - Israeli and Palestinian - to the land is real, especially for those displaced from their historic homes. This issue must be dealt with fairly and equitably in negotiations toward a two-state solution.

What about the rights of Arab Israelis?
When Israel was created in 1948, some Arab Palestinians fled or were evicted from the territory that became the State of Israel. For a variety of reasons, some willingly chosen and some not, other Arab Palestinians stayed within Israel and became Israeli citizens. Today, it is estimated that approximately 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs, living in towns like Nazareth that are within sovereign Israel but have historically Christian or Muslim Arab populations. (By contrast, Palestinians who live in the occupied territories - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - are not citizens of Israel). While full citizens of Israel legally, Arab Israelis face a variety of de facto discrimination and challenges in daily life. Their municipalities typically receive less funding from the Israeli government than Jewish municipalities and are thus unable to ensure a similar quality of life. They face challenges in the educational system and employment. They are numerically underrepresented in the Knesset. Moreover, many Arab Israelis worry that, if negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership produce a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, their own rights within Israel will be diminished further or they will be pressured to leave to go join a new Palestinian state. The Episcopal Church, through its 70th General Convention, has recognized Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, but it also believes strongly that non-Jewish citizens of Israel must have the same rights and status - in law and in practice - as Jewish citizens. This often neglected piece of the puzzle - the assurance of minority rights within both Israel and a future Palestinian state - must be on the able in peace negotiations, and parties must be held to account.

How does water relate to the Conflict?
Access to water is a principal practical concern in the Middle East, and hence, a significant political question in many places. Israel presently draws much of its water from two large underground aquifers that run underneath the West Bank. While Israel, in turn, supplies the West Bank with 77 percent of its water supply, practical experience has been that water access for Palestinians has been irregular, erratic, and insufficient for daily life. (When traveling in Israel and the Palestinian territories, one notes that Palestinian homes have water tanks on their roofs while Israeli homes do not. This is because Israelis have access to a regular underground water supply, just as a Americans do, while Palestinians might have access to the water supply only several times a month when Israel supplies water to the West Bank, thus necessitating the filling of storage tanks for use throughout the month.) The Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization establish, for an interim period prior to the creation of a Palestinian state, the legality of Israel's use of water from the West Bank as well as its obligation to provide water to Palestinians to supplement their own production and to allow sovereign Palestinian drilling. Future peace negotiations must establish clear and enforceable mechanisms for Palestinian sovereignty over water from the West Bank. Moreover foreign water-and-sanitation investments in the Palestinian territories should continue, as should ongoing efforts by Israel to create massive seawater desalinization plants that will allow it to derive the majority of its water supply from the sea rather than from aquifers beneath the West Bank.

What more can be said about settlements?
We have addressed the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem in prior alerts, noting that the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state is essential to its future viability. The United States, like every other government in the world, recognizes that Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian territories is illegitimate, and President Obama worked successfully early in his Administration to persuade the Israeli government to implement a nine-month freeze on new construction within the West Bank. That freeze was ended by the Israeli government after negotiations with the Palestinians faltered, and the White House has not been successful in pressing for a new settlement freeze (and has, in fact, abandoned most diplomatic efforts in this respect.) The Episcopal Church is clear in opposing settlement building in the Palestinian territories, and has urged the President, as the Presiding Bishop wrote in her September pastoral letter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to renew diplomatic efforts to persuade the Israeli government to once again freeze settlement construction in order to signal good faith toward future negotiations. (The Presiding Bishop also urged the President to press Palestinian leaders to make certain political assurances, including the assurance that Fatah/Hamas political reconciliation will not diminish the Palestinian Authority's commitment to Israel's right to exist or her security, as a demonstration of the PA's own good faith toward negotiations.)