STEPHEN P. COHEN
A new US movement for Middle East peace
WITH ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN violence, including the horrible phenomenon of suicide bombing, raging since September 2000, it is often said that the Israeli peace movement has been shattered and reduced to a small coterie of diehards. Recently, though, there has been a modest revival of the Israeli peace camp, including the letter from Israeli pilots who refuse to bomb civilian population centers, the letters of protest from Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, and now the Geneva Accord reached between remnants of the Israeli left and a group of Palestinian officials and intellectuals.
Now the American Jewish peace camp has to be reenergized. Its importance is crucial, particularly since American Jewish opinion plays a significant role in persuading the Bush administration either to show leadership in the conflict or to pull back from any commitment that might be too costly in electoral terms.
Most American Jews and other Americans agree that suicide attacks must be abandoned. Yet there has been a persistent small voice that has argued that one cannot hope to stop terror unless one also provides the Palestinians with the hope for a just political solution. Whether that small voice can become a powerful force in an American Jewish peace movement in the coming year will be revealed in large measure at a conference this week in Boston.
A group of people from across the country has formed a Jewish peace organization called Brit Tsedek, which is Hebrew for a "covenant of justice." This new organization is made up of people concerned about peace and justice who haven't fit in with the present range of Jewish organizations. Brit Tsedek hopes to carry the message of a reemerging Israeli peace movement into the American political scene. It has made its first slogan "bring the settlers home," indicating its sensitivity to the human obstacle to peace that has been most problematic on the Israeli side.
This stance shows the acuity of Brit Tsedek in entering the greatest breach in the consensus of American Jews who are divided about the settlement issue and especially about the continued building of new settlements even while the "road map" and other peace proposals have been on the table.
It is clear that the strengthening of these settlements saps the belief of any Arab that Israel has the intention of allowing a viable independent Palestinian state to emerge.
Though Brit Tsedek has begun with the call for settlers to come home, it has a broader peace agenda. It has been one of the persistent groups of American Jews supporting the road map, which, for a time was the best hope of breaking the pattern of violence and revenge. Now the road map is in tatters.
There is, however, a new initiative on the table, the Geneva Accord reached by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators operating outside official processes. These understandings are far from an official agreement, but they represent the best news for peace since the intifada broke out.
They are the fruit of indigenous Israeli and Palestinian efforts to resolve the hardest issues that prevented an agreement under President Clinton when they were negotiating officially.
The accord addresses such historical issues as the future of Jerusalem and unresolved issues such as a map and borders, as well as the perennial deal breaker, the Palestinian refugees who have lived in exile since 1947 or 1949. These refugees are now in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria or in refuge camps in Gaza and the West Bank.
If there is to be a revival of peace talks, it will require an American public willing to insist that its president put the Arab-Israeli peace process at the center of his agenda and commit to a just peace between a Palestinian state and the state of Israel.
When Americans make this demand, it will be thanks to groups like Brit Tsedek for taking the lead. They will have to be joined by American Christians, American Muslims, and Americans with no religious commitment but with a strong conviction about peace and justice.
Stephen P. Cohen is president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development and national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.