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Still Searching for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

March 4, 2011

The weather is getting warmer here in Ramallah and the almond trees are in full bloom. The fields in the West Bank and Israel are a rich green as a result of abundant and welcome winter rains (and irrigation). The natural beauty is striking and uplifting here in the land that is holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims. But amidst the natural beauty, there is a sense of deep uncertainty about the future among both Israelis and Palestinians.

I have spent the past ten days talking with people on both sides of the barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. The barrier/wall/fence (the terminology varies depending on your geographic location, as well as your political perspective) often delves deeply into the occupied West Bank, particularly around east Jerusalem and when it is proximate to Israeli settlements. In other places, the barrier snakes its way along the armistice line drawn at the conclusion of the 1948 conflict referred to by Israelis as the War of Independence and by Palestinians as the Nakba (the catastrophe).

I am sojourning with a group of high school students. Our students hail from the Peoples Republic of China, the Republic of China, and the United States. Our journey thus far has taken us to east and west Jerusalem, as well as to the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee, and to Bethlehem and Ramallah. Over the course of the past ten days, we have had the opportunity to hear differing perspectives on the quality of life and the current impasse in negotiations for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Here are some initial thoughts about what we have heard.

First and foremost, from a Palestinian perspective, the door to a two-state solution is seen as closing rapidly. The prevailing sense of uncertainty and pessimism about the viability of a two-state solution is not a new one. But the situation has taken on a new urgency as a result of the ongoing growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the US veto of the UN Security Council resolution on February 18.

I am referring to the UN Security resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank as an obstacle to peace and illegal under international law. The resolution sought to cast a new urgency for a negotiated peace agreement. Although FCNL and many other organizations urged the U.S. administration to cast a “yes” vote, in the end the U.S. cast the sole “no” vote (a veto), while the other 14 members of the Security Council voted in favor of the resolution.

We’ve heard widely-divergent interpretations regarding the meaning of the US veto. We met earlier this week with a West Bank settler who holds dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship. He told us that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and that post-1948/1967 the West Bank is “disputed territory” and not occupied territory. He believes that the recent UN vote supports his narrative and sends a message to the world that settlements are both legitimate and legal. This view is not, of course, consistent with the U.S. explanation of its veto. But perceptions are important, especially in this part of the world.

The Israeli settler point of view on the UN resolution is in stark contrast to the viewpoint articulated by Palestinians with whom we’ve met. Most concerning is the perception among Palestinians of the serious erosion of U.S. credibility as a result of the UN vote. When one combines this erosion with the equally serious misinterpretation of U.S policy among the increasingly powerful Israeli settler movement, the prospects for a just and lasting peace seem remote. The sense of uncertainty – even of doom among some — is not new. We have been there before. So what is different this time?

The difference is the political change – led to a large extent by young people – that is sweeping across the Arab world in north Africa and the Middle East. This political change – the outcome of which is still unknown – is a source of unease and uncertainty for many Israelis while at the same time being a source of great hope for many Palestinians.

The “new Arab world” that is emerging provides tremendous opportuity for this U.S. administration. But that opportunity can be seized only if the United States takes bold new initiatives and breaks out of the geostrategic-driven foreign policy of the past.

A U.S. administration that initially offered bright hope in the Arab world for a new Middle East has sunk to new lows. President Obama’s 2009 address to the Muslim world from Cairo is now viewed by Palestinians with whom our group has spoken as insincere at best and hypocritical at worst.

At FCNL we will be joining others to urge the U.S. administration and Congress to take bold new steps for peace in the Middle East. More details will be forthcoming soon.

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