A Welcome Dose of Hope
By Steve Masters, President

The past few weeks have witnessed a cluster of positive events in the Middle East that, taken as a whole, provide a welcome dose of hope.

Israel-Hamas Ceasefire
Bush Administration Engagement
Israel-Syria Talks
Growing American Understanding

ISRAEL-HAMAS CEASEFIRE
The most important news is, of course, the recently achieved ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza. Though the calm is understandably fragile, any opportunity to bring quiet to a desperately inflamed situation is a good thing; Israelis are badly in need of a break from the fear of daily rocket barrages, and Palestinians urgently need an end to Israeli military incursions and the chance to re-establish lines of supply, bringing relief to the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who suffer from daily hunger.

Moreover, the ceasefire will allow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank with his Fatah-led government, much greater freedom to negotiate with the Israeli government. Much as he, and most of his constituency, want to see an agreement, it is difficult for Palestinians to support talks while Gaza remains in daily conflict with the occupying power. Both sides will have to work very hard not to allow themselves to be distracted by extremists and naysayers; the stability of the ceasefire will depend on it.

It is perhaps equally crucial that Abbas's Fatah party is holding reconciliation talks with its Palestinian adversary, Hamas. While no one in the American Jewish community holds any great love for Hamas, the fact is that the movement governs Gaza, and retains the support of a significant portion of the Palestinian populace. There is no way to achieve a real, lasting peace without all of the major Palestinian factions behind it; anything that Fatah achieves on its own, in short, is vulnerable to the Hamas "veto" of violence against Israelis. It is significant that as soon as talks began between the two, Abbas's popularity shot up, with the majority of Palestinians saying they would vote for him in Presidential elections rather than Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, if such elections were held today.

BUSH ADMINISTRATION ENGAGEMENT
The Bush Administration’s recent re-engagement with the peace process is equally promising. This has been expressed on a variety of issues, each a sign that the White House appears to understand that it must commit itself to aggressively following up on President Bush’s inspiring words at Annapolis last November. 

Most recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had some harsh words for Israel in response to the decision to build 1,300 more homes in East Jerusalem, on lands that Palestinians see as part of their future capital. "We should be in a position of encouraging confidence, not undermining it. No party should be taking steps at this point that could prejudice the outcome of the negotiation," Rice said, stressing that the US would not see any settlements established now as permanent Israeli territory.

In addition, the US government has also begun to pressure Israel to withdraw from a disputed piece of land on the Golan Heights, the Shaba Farms. Lebanon views the land as Lebanese, but the UN has said it belongs to Syria. Israel annexed it following the 1967 war, and it remains a very thorny issue whenever negotiations are attempted with either country.

Perhaps, in response to this push, Israel announced its interest in peace talks with Lebanon that would bring every issue of contention to the table. The Lebanese government rejected Israel's call, but meanwhile Israel confirmed this past week that it is engaged in talks with Hezbollah regarding a prisoner swap that would involve the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers whose capture precipitated the Second Lebanon War of 2006. 

ISRAEL-SYRIA TALKS
The Shaba Farms issue has resurfaced lately in part because of the Israeli-Syrian talks currently being conducted in Turkey. These quiet negotiations have the potential to be tremendously important; not only would a permanent peace treaty serve both war-weary nations, Syria's position vis-à-vis Israel also has an enormous impact on the positions of Lebanon and Hezbollah. The very fact that the two sides are sitting in the same room is a significant step forward, and indication that even the most intractable enemies can learn to change their behavior. According to Israel, U.S. involvement will be necessary to take the steps towards direct negotiations.

GROWING AMERICAN UNDERSTANDING
Finally, there are clear signs that the American political climate has changed, as our representatives come to understand that a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States. The leadership of both political parties has made clear that the end goal of negotiations is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure Israel. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama recently stated before AIPAC: “Israelis understand that real security can only come through lasting peace. And that is why we — as friends of Israel — must resolve to do all we can to help Israel and its neighbors to achieve it. Because a secure, lasting peace is in Israel's national interest. It is in America's national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and the Arab world.”

The Bush Administration’s recent involvement is a further sign of this growing understanding. While honesty demands that we admit that President Bush stands very little chance of achieving his declared goal of a peace treaty before he leaves office, the efforts he and Secretary of State Rice make today have the potential to lay crucial groundwork, so that the next President will be able to hit the ground running.

HISTORY AS OUR GUIDE
Interestingly, one notable fact has gone largely unnoted in recent weeks: The Hamas-Israel ceasefire talks were mediated by Egypt, a county once determined to wipe Israel off the map. The fact that this leader in the Arab world is today trusted by all sides is quite possibly the best endorsement imaginable of the efficacy of negotiated peace agreements. The work needs to be done, yes, but once done, it will take root.

Peace work is never easy, simple, or – as history shows – quick. Those of us who truly believe that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not only possible but absolutely necessary must bear this in mind as we face our own frustrations, and listen to those in our community. And we must also look at the story in its entirety and acknowledge the many changes that have taken place, and the many reasons for hope. They do not yet amount to peace – but it is of these things that peace will be made.

 


Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

info@btvshalom.org
www.btvshalom.org


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