The National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East [NILI] is an organization of leading members of a host of religious communities in the United States. In some cases, the representative is the leading figure in a particular community, in others simply a member. On the organization’s website, one finds this description:
Established in 2003, NILI consistently works to build consensus among Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders and works in a bipartisan manner with policy makers and members of Congress to build public support for peace.
NILI recently produced a document entitled, “Jewish, Christian and Muslim Religious Leaders Call For Bold New Initiative for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Before It’s Too Late” for which many rabbis and other religious leaders around the country are being asked to offer their support.
The document makes several assumptions of which the most basic is that, if Israel is pressured enough by the United States, then it can, should, and will make concessions that would be accepted by the Palestinian leadership, resulting in a peace agreement. The document begins by calling for “immediate, sustained leadership” from the United States.
What does “immediate, sustained leadership” entail? When coupled with the words, “bold initiatives for peace,” “unique leverage,” and “active, fair and firm U.S. leadership” later in the document, these words would seem to imply pressure being brought to bear. Is there any doubt that such pressure would overwhelmingly, or even entirely, fall on Israel?
What kind of pressure could the United States bring to bear on the Palestinian Authority, much less on Hamas? A substantial denial of funds could risk the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. What would the US do to threaten Hamas? Promise to give Israel the weaponry that it needs to defend its citizenry? Would the United States honestly deny that to Israel? Of course not. How about threatening to veto United Nations Security Council resolutions against Israel for defending itself against attacks? The US already does that and to not do so would severely harm Israel.
There is no leverage that the US can bring to bear on the Palestinian side unless it would threaten to recognize Israeli control over territories desired by the Palestinians. It would be difficult to imagine that the US would threaten to do so, much less carry out those threats, but that would be the sole effective real threat from the US against the Palestinian side.
On the other hand, the United States could threaten weakened support for its friend and ally Israel in numerous ways including but not limited to military aid and support, intelligence gathering, and diplomatic and financial support.
The statements in the NILI document about fairness serve merely as a fiction created to make pressuring Israel appear to be in the context of bringing pressure to bear against both sides, when in fact the only pressure that may be brought to bear through “leverage” is against Israel. Therefore the statement as a whole amounts to a call to have the United States government pressure Israel alone to make concessions.
One must question whether or not such pressure should ever be applied to a friend and ally, but this is surely not the time for any friend of Israel to bring such threats to bear, and they would be threats. This is a time when the nations bordering Israel are in utter chaos. It is a time when all of the Arab governments in the region are under threat by radicals and no few are falling to them. This is a time when the Palestinian Authority’s best friend, Egypt, fell to its mortal enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, parent of Hamas. Right now, Gaza is in control of a Muslim Brotherhood allied, Iranian backed and armed, force desirous of destroying Israel. The Palestinian Authority has no power and little influence at all over affairs in Gaza and its control over the West Bank is largely dependent upon the West and Israel. This is the time to encourage Israel to make concessions? A time when the Palestinian side has little or no ability to make the concessions that it must make if any peace agreement is to be reached?
The phrase in the NILI statement, “We recently witnessed shadows of dusk,” would seem to reference Israel’s actions in Operation Pillar of Defense in which Israel struck Hamas and Islamic Jihad military sites, but not the sustained activity against Israel in the months and years prior. “Recently witnessed” would hardly be appropriate for months and years of such activity. This statement can only be a condemnation of Israel’s actions as hastening an end to the peace process, something against which a strong argument could be made. In that regard, one could argue that, by reducing the armed threat against Israeli civilians and weakening Hamas, the major opponent of any peace agreement between the sides, Operation Pillar of Defense “allowed light to appear once again through the clouds.” The fact that NILI chose the opposite point of view indicates a clear bias and, in my view, a wrongheaded understanding both of those events and the current state of affairs.
This misunderstanding is developed more fully in the following statement:
The current dangerous stalemate, including the legacy of past failed peacemaking efforts, undermines our security and that of others, destabilizes the region, fuels terrorism and extremism, allows continuing Israeli settlement expansion, and prolongs Palestinian disunity.
In one statement, NILI lays blame at the lap of Israel for multiple evils, while assigning no blame at all to the Palestinians. Let me address these accusations individually.
First of all, there is a mention of “past failures in the peace process.” There is no mention of the fact that, while Israel has repeatedly called for negotiations, the Palestinian side currently refuses to come to the negotiating table. Moreover, in 2000, the Palestinians walked away from an agreement at Camp David and then launched the 2nd Intifada. Today the situation is one which includes a markedly worsened negotiating position for the Palestinians following that Intifada, which proved a colossal failure and cost many lives, and with the rise of Hamas in Gaza in 2007. The thousands of rockets fired from Gaza and other violence against Israel conducted over the past decade must have an impact on what Israel may reasonably be asked to offer in a peace agreement.
Second, there is the argument clearly made by NILI that what is going wrong in the Middle East is centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Americans are suffering because that conflict has not been resolved. This argument is fallacious. The conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Mali are not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One could make a much stronger argument in fact that what destabilizes these places and what destabilizes the region, namely religious extremism along with anti-Western and anti-Jewish views, makes the peace process untenable at this time. This is precisely the opposite of what is being contended by NILI.
Third, to argue that an absence of a peace process preserves Palestinian disunity is absurd. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are in near complete disagreement on whether or not pursuing peace is a viable or desired option. It would be easier to argue in fact that the peace process itself is a wedge issue and that, the more pressure is applied, the further apart the two Palestinian sides become. That said, the differences between the two groups run far deeper than a disagreement about peace, instead having to do with attitudes toward a whole host of religious, social, economic and political issues having nothing to do with Israel.
So let me propose a more apt, modified, and significantly shorter revision of the NILI statement:
As religious leaders committed to peace, we urge the immediate return to the negotiating table by both sides without preconditions. If fruitful negotiations do not occur, the situation in which there is ongoing conflict will be sustained indefinitely at a cost to both Israelis and Palestinians.
As people of faith, we proclaim that we should never underestimate what is possible, nor ignore what is reasonable. Israelis and Palestinians can achieve a lasting peace, but only through negotiations that address the realities of the past decades of conflict and the situation at present.
We urge the two sides to negotiate a peace agreement that will eventually provide for a secure and recognized Israel living in peace alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state. We know the challenges are daunting, but we believe that progress toward peace may be made.
Let us together bring the new light of hope and work for negotiations leading to a final status agreement. [END]
If you are interested in what may be accomplished at this point in the pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I encourage you to read the article that I published in December entitled, “Realistic Hopes for Peace in the Real World.”
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