Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) writes about President Bush's latest trip, calls it a missed opportunity to present a Holy Land vision. For more news and action tips, see the CMEP web site: www.cmep.org
Bush's Latest Trip: A Missed Opportunity to Present a Holy Land Vision
CMEP's email message is also available online at: www.cmep.org/Alerts/2008May23.htm
May 23, 2008
Julie Schumacher Cohen, Legislative Coordinator
The President's latest trip to the Middle East seems to have failed to make meaningful progress on the Annapolis peace process. The three-way summit in Sharm el Sheikh that some had predicted did not happen, although the President did meet with Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab leaders separately. A focal point of the visit was his address to the Israeli Knesset, a unique opportunity to recognize not only Israel's 60th anniversary but also present a vision for peace. It is that speech which has seized the most attention and caused the most debate. Much of the attention has been given to the President's remarks about the danger of "appeasement" vis-à-vis those who would advocate U.S. dialogue with our "enemies." Less noticed were (1) the regrettable absence of any substantive mention of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and (2) the highly religious tone that imbued much of the President's remarks about Israel.
Throughout the Knesset speech, the President related Biblical promises to the modern state of Israel, whose destiny he linked to America's destiny. In describing the founding of Israel, he said "what followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David- a homeland for the chosen people Eretz Yisrael." In illustrating the American relationship with Israel, he pointed out that the founders of the United States saw in it "a new promised land," and he recalled William Bradford stepping off the Mayflower and quoting the words of Jeremiah, "Come let us declare in Zion the word of God."
For those of us who are religiously-minded, it should be no surprise that the conflict in the Holy Land evokes spiritual and religious imagery, even by major heads of state. In 1978, on the occasion of Israel's 30th anniversary, President Carter declared that "The establishment of the nation of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and the very essence of its fulfillment." Carter's words sound no less "Christian Zionist" than those spoken by Bush last week. Likewise, President Clinton in 1994 when he went before the Knesset recalled the words of his own pastor who said, "it was God's will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue for ever and ever." However, such statements do raise a number of questions given the competing Palestinian claim over the Holy Land and the role the U.S. has traditionally sought to play as peacemaker between Arabs and Jews. The question is not whether or not the Jewish people have a religious and historical tie to the land that is today the modern state of Israel - they clearly do - but whether it is an exclusive tie, and whether a president of the United States is a qualified interpreter capable of providing a sound understanding of the biblical promises, not to mention their relationship to U.S. foreign policy.
In any case, when these three U.S. Presidents had a chance to speak before the Israeli Knesset - the only three that have - Carter and Clinton, unlike Bush, did not merely congratulate Israeli lawmakers. Both emphasized the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, based on shared values, at times laden in religious symbolism. However, importantly, they also used their speeches to emphasize the imperative for peacemaking. In 1979 on the heels of the Egypt-Israel accords but before any PLO dialogue had begun Carter said, "It's important that the door be kept open to all the parties to the conflict, including the Palestinians, with whom, above all, Israel shares a common interest in living in peace and living with mutual respect." Clinton, visiting during promising talks between Syria and Israel, told the Knesset members: "After all the bloodshed and all your tears, you are now far closer to the day when the clash of arms is heard no more, and all the children of Abraham - the children of Isaac, the children of Ishmael - will live side by side in peace." But President Bush's speech made no reference to the Annapolis process and exhibited little sensitivity to the situation of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. By failing to offer an inclusive religious message, that is also in line with the long-standing American diplomatic goal of a just and secure resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, his words left other faith groups and the Palestinian people unsure about his recognition of their own ties and connections to the Holy Land.
Fortunately, President Bush did not depart from the principle of U.S. support for a two-state solution. While he made only a cursory mention of a Palestinian state in the Knesset speech, in Egypt three days later he presented a clearer message when he said, "Last year at Annapolis, we made a hopeful beginning toward a peace negotiation that will outline what this nation of Palestine will look like -- a contiguous state where Palestinians live in prosperity and dignity. A peace agreement is in the Palestinians' interests, it is in Israel's interests, it is in Arab states' interests, and it is in the world's interests." So the President who made history for being the first to make formal U.S. policy the creation of a Palestinian state has not departed from his commitment, but his words in the Knesset failed to strengthen the forces for peace in the region and give greater credibility to his Annapolis efforts.
At the end of President Bush's remarks to Israel's lawmakers, he told a story of how on the day of Israel's independence, the retreating British handed the key to Jerusalem's Zion gate to a senior rabbi, "the first time in 18 centuries that a key to the gates of Jerusalem had belonged to a Jew." Speaking in Jerusalem and recalling a poignant moment for Jews in their holy city could have been a moment to provide a broader spiritual message on that sacred place. What does Jerusalem mean to Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide and to both the Israeli and Palestinian people? How can all of us who hold the city dear best respond to the Psalmist's entreaty, to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure."? To date, the Bush Administration has been hesitant to offer its own view on how Jerusalem should be resolved or to significantly challenge Israeli actions that prejudge the city's future. The President could have used his historic speech to the Knesset to broaden his two-state vision to include the principle of a shared Jerusalem, holy to three faiths, significant for two peoples and critical to a final status agreement.
The Middle East today is being torn apart by sectarian conflicts and religious extremism. With the Israeli-Arab conflict persisting 60 years after the birth of Israel, President Bush missed an opportunity to articulate the need for coexistence, tolerance and compromise and to assert more urgent American leadership on issues like Jerusalem. It is not too late for this. By restoring momentum and credibility to the Annapolis peace process, the President can still fulfill the legacy he seeks as a peacemaker.
Churches for Middle East Peace
--- --- ---
To receive regular bulletins from Ann Hafften, subscribe at the blog, A Texas Lutheran's Voice for Peace - http://voicesforpeace.blogspot.com/