Do you know the definition of a pessimist?” asks Afif Safieh, head of the PLO delegation to the U.S. He answers with a bitter smile, “An optimist with information.” There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism arising from the peace talks restarted at last November’s Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, and from President Bush’s January visit to Israel and Palestine.
It must surely be progress that, at Annapolis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet every two weeks to continue their high-level diplomacy. And in January, during his first visit to Israel and Palestine, Bush surprised just about everyone by insisting, “These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. ... Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.” Bush optimistically said he believes the two sides will be able to sign an agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.
However, as long as the U.S. follows a unilateral approach, hinders the work of the United Nations, and funds the Israeli occupation of Palestine, there is little hope of achieving anything. As Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes points out, while both sides have an equal right to peace and security, “there is a grossly unequal balance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the occupying Israelis.”
Zunes continues, “U.N. Security Council Resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471 explicitly call on Israel to remove its colonists from the occupied territories. However, both the Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress have gone on record that Israel should not be required to withdraw from the majority of these settlements. ... Any Palestinian state remaining would effectively be comparable to the notorious Bantustans of South Africa prior to majority rule.”
As University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle put it, Bush’s statement “that ‘Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state,’ sound[s] substantial, but [is] rendered rather meaningless since he only said the U.S. is opposing ‘settlement expansion’—meaning that current settlements … will remain and be annexed by Israel.”
Several questions remain unanswered and will determine whether the optimists or the pessimists are proved right. What really constitutes a viable, independent, contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state? The June 4, 1967, borders between Israel and Palestine are the only ones recognized in international law. What will be the status of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians regard as their capital? The unilateral Israeli annexation of much of East Jerusalem must be revoked. Will the U.S. continue to fund Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine? Israel’s settlements, exclusive Israeli-only roads, hundreds of military checkpoints, and above all its “separation wall” are only sustainable with U.S. sponsorship.
Will the U.S. continue to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, or will it work with the U.N. to help Israel live up to its international and legal obligations? Does the Bush administration recognize that an Israeli withdrawal from the Syrian Golan is essential? What about the status of Palestinian refugees? Will the U.S. respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian people and negotiate with Hamas? Will Abbas be able to restrain extremists who through suicide bombs and rocket attacks seek to forestall any steps toward a peace agreement? And does George W. Bush still believe he can take on Iran without first achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians? War with Iran would well and truly bury any chance of a regional peace deal for years, if not decades.
Time is running out for both sides. A failure to seize this opportunity for peace will not only lead to yet more years of conflict and radicalization, but will probably mark the end of the two-state solution.
Will George W. succeed where his predecessors have failed? There remain many unanswered questions, and the clock is ticking. If recent history suggests it is unlikely a peace deal can be achieved this year, Rev. Naim Ateek, the Palestinian director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, offers a more long-term perspective: “Ultimately, peace will come not from the Caesars and all those who trust in their military might and in the arrogance of their power, but from the meek that put their trust in God. It is the meek who will inherit the earth. God’s message of peace still rings true, not from Annapolis, which represents empire, but from the small town of Bethlehem. ... Only the peace that God gives, the peace that is based on justice and truth, will survive and prosper.”
Stephen Sizer is vicar of Christ Church in Virginia Water, England, and author of Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel, and the Church.