December 7, 2007


Israeli-Palestinian conflict

(Listen to this editorial being read)

For obvious reasons, the Catholic Church is always interested in what happens in the Holy Land. The Holy See has offered its help in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and Pope Benedict XVI has met privately with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

For the first time in seven years, those leaders sat around a negotiating table, thanks to the Middle East peace conference that President George W. Bush convened in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 27. Almost 50 countries and international agencies sent representatives to the conference. They represented 16 Arab nations, including Syria, a key Hamas patron, and Saudi Arabia.

Just prior to the conference, the British newsmagazine The Economist published an issue with Bush’s photo on the cover under the title “Mr. Palestine: The only man who could make it happen.” Considering what the people in the Middle East think of the president (and the United States), we think that’s highly questionable. The Arabs look at the United States as Israel’s ally, not as a neutral nation.

We think the only ones who could conceivably “make it happen” are the major Arab nations that support Hamas in Gaza. If the United States could somehow persuade Syria, Jordan and other Arab nations to insist that Hamas cooperate with whatever plans are negotiated—in return for the United States doing the same to Israel—there could be some progress.

After almost seven years of doing little to encourage peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Bush declared that “the time is right” for a two-state solution.

Negotiators are now intent on trying to achieve that goal before Bush leaves office in 13 months. That would be tremendous if it could be accomplished, and we don’t doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are anxious to do it, but they face overwhelming obstacles and compromises.

The Palestinians can no longer expect Israel to revert to its 1967 borders because of the 270,000 Israelis who live in West Bank settlements plus the 180,000 Israelis who live in 13 settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, 220,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem without full citizenship. Polls indicate that most Israelis are ready to give up most of the Palestinian territory they have been occupying. Israel would have to give up some of its land and would have to dismantle many of its settlements.

Both sides want Jerusalem as its capital, and it’s difficult to see how there can be a solution without that happening—Israel in West Jerusalem and Palestine in East Jerusalem. Special arrangements would have to be made for the Old City with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy places, perhaps including an international presence there.

Israel cannot accede to the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return to areas of Israel. If they all did so, they would outnumber the Jews. But the Palestinians must be compensated in some way for relinquishing that right.

Even if it’s possible for negotiators to create compromises, it will be difficult to sell it. A bill in the Israeli Knesset that would require approval of a peace deal by an almost unattainable two-thirds of the legislators has passed first reading.

But most difficulty would be among the Palestinians, especially since Abbas has no control over those in Gaza, ruled by Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Gaza government, has made it clear that Hamas will never recognize Israel’s right to exist in a Muslim Middle East. Hamas wasn’t invited to the conference in Annapolis, but wouldn’t have sent representatives if it had been. Instead, there were daily demonstrations in Gaza against the conference.

It’s true that polls show that a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis favor a negotiated settlement. That apparently isn’t true in Gaza, though, where Hamas won the last election. Perhaps the most we can hope for would be a Palestinian state on the West Bank—in effect, a three-state solution.

We agree with Bush that “a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists.”

We must hope and pray that the negotiators will achieve what now seems nearly impossible.

—John F. Fink

Local site Links: