December 11, 2009


Still no Holy Land peace

As we complete another year, peace in the land of Christ’s birth seems as elusive as ever. Despite that, we’ve found some hope for optimism.

We had hoped that the administration of President Barack Obama would take a more active role in working for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians than the administration of former president George W. Bush did. We ended an editorial a year ago by saying, “We hope that President-elect Obama will appoint an experienced, high-powered representative to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a just agreement.”

President Obama did appoint such a representative—George Mitchell. Furthermore, President Obama himself reached out to the Arab and Muslim world in a speech in Cairo last June in which he promised that America would be more even-handed in furthering negotiations leading to a two-state solution. He demanded that Israel stop building or expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But everything seems to have gone downhill since that speech. Israel’s President Binyamin Netanyahu flatly refused to stop expanding settlements and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meekly accepted that decision, even praising Netanyahu for his promise to “restrain” the building of new settlements as contrasted with expanding existing ones.

Then, following a meeting in New York on Sept. 22 with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama spoke of “containing” settlements rather than “freezing” them.

Naturally, that infuriated Abbas, who has been cooperating with American peace plans as much as he can. He threatened to resign or not to run for

re-election. It also prompted him to get tougher since Hamas, which controls Gaza, already considers him too weak and refuses to accept him as their president.

Then, of course, there is still the matter of the security wall that Israel is building. When Cardinal John P. Foley, grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, saw it, he said, “The most tragic thing I have seen is the miles-long wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem, and separates families and keeps farmers from the land that has been in their families for generations. It is humiliating and distressing.”

With all these problems, how can anyone be optimistic? Well, Franciscan Father David M. Jaeger is. Father David, presently a professor of canon law in Rome, has lived many years in the Holy Land and has helped the Holy See negotiate with Israel.

In a column in the fall issue of The Holy Land Review, Father David wrote that he had dined with some Western ambassadors and a high-level official of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“My faith in the possibility for peace was greatly reinforced by the Palestinian official, who proved to be full of enthusiasm and good will,” he said.

“I already knew, as everyone else knows, that the same attitude is shared by an entire generation of the PLO, born under occupation and often with years passed in military prisons, where they took care to learn Hebrew and to strive to know and understand their jailers, building in this way bridges which should now be crossed,” he said. “Meeting and listening to a person belonging to this ‘generation of hope’ has given me significant confirmation of all that.”

We recognize that President Obama has a lot more on his plate, but surely George Mitchell, with the president’s backing, could do more to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Of course, the United States can’t do it by itself. We need the Arab countries, especially Egypt, to work with the leaders of Hamas in Gaza. But we need to put more pressure on Israel to stop expanding their settlements.

How can we do that? The Economist had some suggestions in its Nov. 14 issue when it editorialized, “Mr. Obama should have pressed on, threatening to squeeze the recalcitrant Mr. Netanyahu with a range of penalties [for instance, by withholding government loans, lessening aid by the amount that Israel spends on settlements and ceasing automatically to wield a protective veto over UN resolutions hostile to Israel].”

Father David wrote, “Among the Palestinians, the more the hoped-for freedom is delayed, the more the threat grows of Islamic extremism.”

—John F. Fink

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