Toward an Abrahamic Peace

In what some world strategists call “the arc of instability” from Pakistan to Israel and Palestine — and what others call the central pool of oil and still others call the heart of Islam — there are several sets of overlapping wars, military occupations, and semi-military sanctions in process between the U.S. and its allies and various Muslim-majority countries.

Within that cauldron, there seems to be both a more intense danger of metastasized war and terrorism, between Israel, its Palestinian neighbors, and their allies, and a brighter glimmer of chance for peace for Israel and Palestine than at any time in the last dozen years.

After the Gaza War

The Gaza War of December 2008, climaxing years of hostility, violence, and misery, changed the ethical and political balance of forces in regard to peacemaking among Israel, Palestine, and the Arab states. In the most immediate vicinity of time and space, that war made peace-making harder. It brought about massive death and destruction in Gaza, moved the Israeli government far to the right, and strengthened Hamas in Gaza and in other regions of Palestine. A “ceasefire” that left in place the Israeli blockade of Gaza pointed nowhere.

Outside Israel and Palestine, the war itself, the absence of any resolution arising from it, and the strengthening of right-wing rejectionist elements in both societies brought the beginnings — only the beginnings — of a stronger proactive search for peace, especially in the American public and from the U.S. government.

The Gaza War and its aftermath made even clearer that the movement for a two-state peace will have to include strong pushes and pulls from outside — that is, from the United States, which is the only force able to muster enough clout and (perhaps) enough moral authority to make a difference. It also reinforced a sense of urgency that if a peace settlement is not achieved soon, it may take another generation to move forward, while in the mean time the conflict is likely to intensify and give birth to even greater dangers of violence in and beyond the immediate region.

In response to these factors, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are hinting at a more even-handed effort to make peace, including making demands that the Israeli government stop all forms of increasing settlers and settlements in the occupied West Bank.

At the same time, the Gaza War and its aftermath began to fracture what had been the monolithic stance of the official “mainstream” American Jewish community. Independent-minded “pro-Israel, pro-peace” groups that predated the Gaza War grew considerably stronger in its wake, and began to cooperate in ways they had avoided before. And the rabbis of Reform Judaism directly and explicitly supported Obama’s call to halt settlements, despite opposition from the Israeli government.

These two developments — Jewish and presidential — strengthened each other: An administration that might have quailed from facing unified hostility from American Jews moved forward, as it saw that there was a chance to win some serious measure of Jewish support for (and even more acquiescence in) a peace policy that insisted on Israeli restraint. Pro-peace elements in the Jewish community took new heart and hope from the prospect of a presidential commitment to peacemaking.

Inside the Obama Administration

In its rhetorical breadth and depth, Obama’s Cairo speech was an extraordinary opening to the Muslim world — making clear that the new U.S. government understands the Arab and Muslim view of the world and takes seriously even Arab and Muslim critiques of U.S. behavior and policy.

The Cairo speech not only set the basic tone of seeking to build a world community rather than an American empire, but also covered all the key specific outstanding issues with a basic outlook of community rather than domination.

In that speech and in official statements since, Obama came closer than ever before to saying the United States would insist on — and not merely urge — a settlement freeze and reversal, and an end to the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza. Even clearer language is probably necessary to build a public groundswell of commitment to this effort. The Cairo speech needs to be given again in Los Angeles, Detroit, the Bronx, Miami, Northeast Philadelphia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi — aimed at Jews and evangelical Christians as well as Muslims.

The Obama administration can follow up on the Cairo speech in several concrete ways. It could start by insisting that the Israeli and Egyptian governments open the borders and ports of Gaza to shipments of food, medicine, fuel, and other civilian goods, while taking the strongest possible steps to prevent the importation of weapons into Gaza. The United States could give strong diplomatic support to the UN special commission under international jurist Richard Goldstone to investigate charges that both sides in the Gaza War violated international law.

Additionally, Washington could launch its own independent investigation of charges that Israel illegally used white phosphorus, supplied by the United States, against the civilian population of Gaza, and could unilaterally choose not to deliver any more white phosphorus, cluster bombs, or similar weapons to the Israeli government. Finally, the United States could make clear its willingness to negotiate with an all-Palestinian government that includes Hamas, or a de facto government of Gaza in which Hamas is central.

Besides Gaza, there are two other “fronts” on which the United States would have to take vigorous action in order to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. One is the issue of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The other is the wider question of peace between Israel and other Arab states — especially, though not only, Syria.

To make peace, it will be necessary to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Israelis there. By now, such a larger number of Israeli and American Jews have gotten so used to the sense of control and the economic benefits of occupation and settlement that many will think that dismantling the occupation is an attack on Israel. They may react that way even if part of the proposed peaceful solution is a great advance in Israeli security, through a full peace treaty between Israel, a new Palestine, and all Arab states.

Obama is extraordinarily adept at changing atmospherics in foreign affairs. But it is not so clear he will carry through with policy change if the going gets rough and the opposition gets rancorous. For example, to persuade the Israeli government to dismantle Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, it might be necessary for the United States to threaten to cancel military aid equal in dollars to the amount the Israeli government spends in supporting and subsidizing the settlements.

Even if the United States offered to redirect that money to subsidize the actual return of settlers onto the soil of Israel proper, such action might spark political opposition not only from the Israeli government but from some American Jews and “Christian Zionists.” Almost all U.S. military aid to Israel is actually spent in the United States in purchases from U.S. military suppliers, so opposition might come from the military-industrial complex as well.

At the same time the United States is pursuing efforts to deal directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would need to try healing the broader wounds of the Middle East. Arab governments and the Arab League aren’t likely to make peace with Israel if a Palestinian state does not become part of the bargain. Conversely, the offer of a clear peace agreement between Israel and the other Arab states is probably the only “carrot” that the Israeli public would accept in order to take the chances involved in making peace with Palestine.

For years the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, has proposed a regional peace settlement that would bring peace to Israel in exchange for the recognition of a new and viable Palestinian state. The Saudi draft of the plan has some problems. Although it has left the issue of Palestinian refugees unclear, the deal must include only very small symbolic numbers of Palestinian refugees returning to Israel itself. It must also include Israeli control of the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Saudis have made clear their willingness to negotiate. The Israeli government, with past support from the U.S. government, has ignored the proposal. But for many Israelis, this would actually be the fulfillment of the dream of a secure and peaceful life. Serious U.S. support of the proposal might empower many Israelis to begin working for it and might lead to an internal political crisis for any Israeli government that tried to keep ignoring the possibility of regional peace.

Pressure Points

There are three possible pressure points for change in U.S. policy.

One of these is a public nonviolent campaign to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In the weeks just before the invasion of Gaza, small boatloads of people were bringing food and medical supplies across the Mediterranean from Europe, ignoring or violating the Israeli blockade. After the invasion began, the Israeli navy forced two more such boats to turn back. After a hiatus, another ship sailed in the summer of 2009, with a humanitarian cargo certified by Cypriot authorities to include no weapons. This time, the Israeli navy boarded the ship and arrested and jailed its crew and activists, which included a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a former U.S. congresswoman.

These voyages are an extraordinary example of nonviolent direct action in the mode of the civil-rights sit-ins in American history. In the 1960s, the sit-in movement did not petition for restaurants, drug-stores, or buses to be desegregated. They integrated the restaurants themselves and forced the legal authorities to respond. Thus, if what the activists desire is a Gaza open to all civilian commerce, these “ship-ins” enact that future in the present — and force the Israeli government to respond.

In the fall of 2008, these “ship-ins” had begun to build support in much of the world, pointing out the injustice and violence of the blockade. Instead of firing rockets in December 2008, Hamas could have turned those boats into a multitude. They might have built an enormous popular pressure in Europe and the United States for an end to the blockade and negotiations between Israel, the various powers, and Hamas.

Now, with the added stimulus of the increased postwar need for humanitarian aid and reconstruction money and supplies for the people of Gaza, Hamas, European, and American doctors, academics, clergy, political leaders, and peace activists are beginning to sponsor what imaginably could become a flotilla of “ship-ins.” The movement could grow as the sit-ins did, perhaps drawing support groups from far way as the Southern sit-ins did in Northern cities. Palestinians who live in Israel and in the allegedly “annexed” East Jerusalem, joined by some Israeli Jews, could start blockading Israeli roads in a strictly nonviolent way (without even stone-throwing). Then, perhaps, this form of nonviolent direct action could have a great impact on U.S. as well as European policy.

A second avenue for efforts to change U.S. policy might be the “boycott/divest/sanctions” movement being pursued by some pro-Palestinian groups. This effort carries with it three serious problems — one ethical, one strategic, and one tactical. Ethically, the present it embodies and the future it seems to proclaim would be hostile to Israel, rather than affirming peace between Israel and Palestine. It appeals far more to anger and disgust than to hope and compassion. It points toward demonization of Israeli society as a whole (or even Jews in general) rather than targeting specific, destructive policies of the Israeli government — a stance not only ethically suspect but likely to create a backlash against itself.

Strategically, it sidesteps the process of bringing power to bear on changing U.S. governmental policy, without (unlike the ship-in movement) having a direct and positive effect on world opinion of the Palestinians. Tactically, such a boycott would have to operate in a world of far more fluid ebbs and flows of globalized capital than during, for example, the successful boycotts of apartheid South Africa. Therefore it’s far less likely to have a powerful impact on Israeli business. Indeed, the greatest discretionary capital input from the West into Israel is the governmental aid from the United States rather than private capital — a circumstance quite different from the South African case.

The third avenue for changing U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the more conventional one of organizing to affect the U.S. Congress. This strategy runs up against the traditional congressional deference to the desires and plans of the Israeli government, but can take advantage of the Obama administration’s greater willingness to pursue major changes.

Agents of Change

There are only two clusters of power in the United States with enough passion about the Middle East to support the more visionary aspects of Obama’s policy. One is Big Oil. So far, it seems to value and trust the mixture of corruption and conquest which has facilitated its acquisition of the natural resources of the region. It is not likely to seek major change.

The other is the ethnic and religious passion of American Christians, Jews, and Muslims. If sizeable parts of these groups could work together for such a policy, it might build enough public support to make presidential action workable. These groups include:

  • An aroused Muslim-American community, not yet fully organized for political action but quickly becoming more so;
  • The beginnings of an independent base in the Jewish community: J Street, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Americans for Peace Now, The Shalom Center, the Israel Policy Forum, Meretz USA, Tikkun, and (from a different political perspective) Jewish Voice for Peace. These groups could draw strength from the majority of real live American Jews — who support such a result but whose politics are unvoiced by the big American Jewish organizations;
  • Mainstream Protestant groups that are raring to go, and will be effective if they can focus on changing U.S. policy, not on parading their own personal purity as in the divestment campaigns; and if they have Jewish allies so as not to be accused of anti-Semitism;
  • Currently inchoate Roman Catholic support for the same result, which might be stimulated into action;
  • Large parts of the African-American community, who are pro-peace and ready to affirm Palestinian self-determination on paper, but so far not focused on this issue because there are other urgencies and because they feel the need for allies to address those urgencies (especially allies among the domestic liberal Jewish organizations);
  • And secular progressives, if they can get over their habit of treating the word “Zionist” as a curse word and can start clearly condemning terrorist attacks on civilians by the underdogs, as well as military attacks, occupation, and blockade by the overdogs.

If such an Abrahamic Grand Alliance came together within the United States in support of an Abrahamic peace in the broader Middle East, the means would point directly toward the ends; the present would embody the future. That is one of the most deeply spiritual forms of action to change society. The effort to shape such a Grand Abrahamic Alliance should begin now.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is director of The Shalom Center and co-author, with a Sufi teacher and a Benedictine nun, of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon). The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. Click here: to receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report: http://www.shalomctr.org/subscribe
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