My personal perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process was strongly influenced by the timing of my first visit to the Holy Land. It was February 2005, and Israel was embarking on a policy that its leaders had labeled “disengagement” — meaning Israel would withdraw from the Palestinian Territories unilaterally, “ending the occupation” and making the “two-state solution” a reality.
The first stage would be the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and security forces from the Gaza Strip. If successful, the Gaza disengagement would be followed by systematic withdrawal from most of the land comprising the West Bank.
Hopes were high for this plan. The occupation was ending, Palestinians were embarking on a path of self-determination and sustainable peace seemed attainable and near.
Subsequent events set these hopes back sharply:
- In 2006 Palestinians held national elections and candidates from Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel, won a majority of legislative positions.
- In 2007 a violent conflict broke out between Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces in Gaza, with Hamas taking over Gaza and the PA losing control of 40 percent of the Palestinian population.
- In subsequent years rockets have been regularly launched at Israel from Gaza, leading to deadly military confrontations in 2008 and 2012.
Today, the idea of “disengagement” as a path to peace has been abandoned by almost all parties, with the exception of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) Movement, which continues to believe that pressing Israel to disengage from the West Bank will lead to peace. Instead, it is widely accepted that peace must come from a negotiated settlement between the two parties, and that any viable settlement must recognize both the right of Palestinians to their own nation and the right of Israelis to peace and security. Secretary of State John Kerry has given the Israeli/Palestinian peace process heightened attention and made Palestinian economic development a major priority.
A few weeks ago, I visited Rawabi, a new Palestinian city being built north of Ramallah. Rawabi will house 40,000 Palestinians and is state-of-the-art in its technology and urban development. The Rawabi construction employs 3,000 local Palestinians and provides important economic benefits to adjacent communities.
In late May at the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan, Kerry announced a plan to raise $4 billion for Palestinian economic development. In addition, a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders announced a new initiative called Breaking the Impasse (BTI). The Israeli contingent was led by Yossi Vardi, a major high-technology entrepreneur, while the Palestinian group was led by Munib al-Masri, a leading Palestinian industrialist who reportedly has been offered the position of Palestinian Prime Minister several times and declined.
BTI’s goals to urge political leaders on both sides to move the two-state solution forward and to increase mutually beneficial business cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. Growing the Palestinian economy requires developing partnerships, and the most natural economic partner for Palestine is Israel.
A second foundation of the peace process is development of Palestinian civil institutions based on participatory democracy. While municipal elections were held last year in the West Bank, there have been no national elections in Palestine since 2006. The Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel would be much stronger if led by elected leaders with a clear popular mandate for peace.
Palestinians deserve a free press and the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. Instead, Palestinians have been arrested for nothing more than criticizing Palestinian leadership. Just as economic growth is necessary, so is development of democratic civil institutions.
The third foundation for peace is social and economic normalization between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization means Palestinian kids with heart defects getting life-saving surgery in Israel, Palestinian and Israeli teenagers developing technology skills in the Mediterranean Youth Technology Club, person-to-person peacemaking initiatives like the Face to Face | Faith to Faith program sponsored by Auburn Seminary. It is people getting to know each other in their daily work and social lives.
Presbyterians can contribute to these efforts, but only if we act as credible peacemakers. We cannot take a simplistic “Israel is the problem” approach to the Middle East. We must recognize the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, and acknowledge that both parties have important obligations that must be met before sustainable peace and justice can prevail.
GEORGE DOUGLAS is an elder at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.