New Hopes For Peace In City of Easter

JERUSALEM — Many Israelis and Palestinians believe that, after the ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime from Iraq, world attention will shift to solving their conflict.

Christians here also find hope in Easter.

Peace promoter Rev. Andrew White says that during the darker moments, when death seems to hover over the Middle East like the stifling sharav winds that stir up the sand until it chokes and blinds, he relies on his Christian faith for comfort.

“From a Christian point of view the very concept of death and resurrection means that no situation is hopeless and out of death can always come life and new birth,” White said. “Jerusalem is the city of resurrection and therefore the city of hope.”

Palestinians, including local Christians, are particularly eager for negotiations to begin on the “road map,” the peace plan drafted almost one year ago by the “Quartet” — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Among other things, the initiative calls for a cessation of violence as well as an end to the expansion of existing Jewish settlements or the creation of new ones. Stalled several times, the plan is still in its initial stages.

The Bush administration is expected to publish details of the road map once the Palestinian legislature confirms a new government under the leadership of Abu Mazen, the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister. The international community views Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president, as a corrupt and ineffective leader who lacks the will to make peace.

The peace plan is already encountering fierce opposition from the right-wing Likud Party in Israel, which officially opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and Palestinian demands for repatriation of refugees.

Even many dovish Israelis who support Palestinian statehood dismiss the notion of a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel, believing it will undermine Israel's Jewish majority. Why create a Palestinian state, they argue, if it is not prepared to accept the refugees?

On numerous occasions Pope John Paul II has called on Israel and its Arab neighbors to end their disputes through negotiations, not violence.

In his annual Peace Day message last December, the Holy Father noted “day after day, year after year, the cumulative effect of bitter mutual rejection and an unending chain of violence and retaliation have shattered every effort so far to engage in serious dialogue.”

Without specifically referring to the “road map,” the Pope called for a “revolution” in political thinking by leaders in the region.

Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and a Palestinian nationalist, has been particularly vocal in his support of a negotiated end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In an April 11 speech celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII's encyclical on peace, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), Patriarch Sabbah called for “the legitimate use of political authority” to solve the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock.

Rabbi David Rosen, an expert in Israeli-Church relations at the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem, predicted the United States and Great Britain will pressure Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table “in order to demonstrate positive dividends” to an Arab world that has been hostile to the war in Iraq.

“Britain and the United States will conclude that it is in their essential strategic interests to move the Israeli-Palestinian track ahead,” even if the conditions are not to either side's liking, Rosen said.

Gerald Steinberg, director of the Conflict Resolution Program at BarIlan University, said it will take much more than a piece of paper to convince Israel the Palestinians truly want peace.

“The peace process has been dead for three years, murdered by Palestinian terrorists, and the road map will not change the situation in the foreseeable future,” Steinberg said.

In order to restore even minimal Israeli confidence, Steinberg continued, “there must be a total change of Palestinian regime. As long as Arafat is in any kind of control and the Arabs cling to the 1947 myths calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, then there is no real peace process.”

Even the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister means very little, Steinberg asserted.

“There is no evidence yet that Abu Mazen and a new Palestinian government can move away from the rhetoric of hatred and the support of terrorism,” he said.

Rosen charged that while the Holy See has repeatedly and unequivocally denounced terrorism, local Catholic leaders sometimes justify terrorism by blaming the Israeli occupation.

Patriarch Sabbah said in his April 11 speech, “the evil of our times is terrorism, and indeed terrorism must be condemned and fought. However, all our efforts in this struggle will not end terrorism if we do not address its root causes …”

Rosen believes the Vatican can play a role in getting the peace process back on track.

“It can do so by taking an even more proactive role against terrorism, which is the source of the vicious cycle of violence,” he said.

Doing so, Rosen said, “might bring it into conflict with the local Church, which is Palestinian and therefore under great pressure to prove its ‘loyalty’ to the Palestinian national cause.”

“It was terrorism that torpedoed the peace process and the peace process can only get back on course if we can curb terrorism,” Rosen said.

Britain's Canon Andrew White, the man who is spearheading the Alexandria Process — a parallel peace initiative led by religious leaders of various faiths — provided a somewhat more upbeat assessment of the prospects for peace.

“This is a three-year plan that, had it stayed on schedule, would be completed in May 2005,” he said.

As it is, White said, “the Palestinians have already met some of the demands. They appointed a prime minister with real power; they have introduced the draft of a new constitution.”

White said neither side has done enough to curb violence or meet their obligations under previous peace treaties.

“The Palestinians must do everything in their power to stop terrorism and the Israelis must stop incursions [into Palestinian territory] and house demolitions,” he said. “They must do everything in their power to end the humanitarian crisis.”

White believes religious leaders, including Catholic clergy, can and should play a vital role in ending the Israeli-Arab conflict once and for all.

“Religious leaders can contribute the spiritual dimension,” he said. “They have to show unity in what they do. They must show that they understand the pain of the others. They have to be willing to defend the others against attack.”

The Oslo accord that was supposed to bring the two sides together “failed in part because it was a secular process led by secular leaders in a land that is called holy,” White said. “The reality is that in Israel-Palestine there is no real separation between church and state. We need to bring a religious dimension back in and to ensure that religion is never a justification for violence.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.

------- EXCERPT: