In January, as part of a tour sponsored by the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of visiting Israel and Palestine. Like many across the globe, I am concerned that Israeli democracy is in jeopardy and that the failure to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine has created an untenable human rights crisis that threatens both Palestine and Israel.
Americans have a reputation for arrogance and speaking when they should listen. My hope is that readers will look past that stereotype and hear my deep concern for both the Israeli and Palestinian people after years of study and after my first visit to a beautiful land. I believe in the right of Israel to exist and have opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement) because too many BDS leaders question that right and use anti-Semitic language in their rhetoric. At the same time, I believe there must be a viable Palestinian state. Criticism of Israel's human rights record concerning the Palestinian people is justified, and Israel has lost moral authority across the globe.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deepened the chaos by allowing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, made a misstep in trying to influence the 2012 U.S. presidential election, fought the Iran Deal that even Israeli military leaders supported, has inflamed tensions with the use of racist rhetoric to win an election, and with coalition partners has taken steps to undermine Israeli democracy. Israeli NGOs that receive overseas funding have come under attack -- with their basic patriotism under question -- while overseas money, much of it from conservative U.S. Christian evangelicals, fuels the development of Israeli's illegal settlement expansion. The Knesset Ethics Committee has banned democratically elected Arab members from performing the duties of their office just for meeting with the families of killed Palestinian terrorists (dialogue frequently involves talk). U.S.-based Pew Research Center has reported this month "nearly half of Israel's Jews support expelling the country's Arabs."
None of this justifies the knife attacks that have been undertaken by some Palestinians. One such attack, near where I walked just over a month ago, took the life of an American student. Too many Israelis live in fear. This was a message shared over and over during my visit. Palestinians shared similar fears and were highly critical of home demolitions taking place in the Occupied Territories. Frustration with the Palestinian Authority, called corrupt and inept by many, was another message shared by Palestinians. There is a lack of trust in both Israeli and Palestinian officials by people on both sides who have all but given up that their leaders can forge peace.
The two-state solution might not seem viable at this moment but what is the alternative? Donald Trump, one of the GOP presidential contenders, said this week that the status quo, occupation, and violence, might just have to last forever. That is naïve thinking. All-out conflict will come sooner -- not later. The difference, this time, is that many will see Israel at fault. Under Netanyahu, the future of Israel has become less secure.
The New York Times reported this week that the White House is debating whether or not President Obama "should lay down the outlines of a (peace) agreement ... perhaps through a resolution at the United Nations Security Council or in a presidential speech. The objective would not be to revive direct negotiations ... but to enshrine the proposals Secretary of State John Kerry made during his last failed effort at peacemaking in 2014."
If asked, I would support such a move by President Obama. Israel is spiraling out of control. The people of Israel should not be considering removing Arabs from Israel. What is needed is an end to the expansion of the settlements and a process that brings the many pro-peace grassroots groups in Israel and Palestine together to force the Israeli and Palestinians governments into a diplomatic process that puts the people of Palestine and Israel in charge of creating a lasting peace. The work would be difficult but not impossible.
The longer Israel waits, however, the weaker the Palestinian Authority will become (which seems to be part of Netanyahu's plan) and the more chaos will reign. Israel will continue to see their friends across the globe question the legitimacy of a government that allows such suffering, and which is willing to undermine their own democratic traditions. Presidential elections in the United States this year could provide Netanyahu with an ally. That would be a disaster. President Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Secretary Kerry have been all that stood between Netanyahu and regional war with Iran.
Like most, I have no magic answer to solve these difficult issues but I believe deeply the people of Israel and Palestine deserve peace -- an end to violence, and end to fear. President Obama and the United States can play a constructive role, but the people of Palestine and Israel must seize the future for real peace to emerge.