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Confront unquestioning support for Israel

The Mideast peace plan announced last month by President Bush is a profound disappointment to all those interested in seeing a just and timely end to the conflict in the Middle East. The situation there is so desperate and the plan put forward so unrealistic that it is an invitation to despair. Certainly, it invites despair on the part of Palestinians, who are told to undertake sweeping reforms of their institutions before any progress toward peace can take place.

Any society ordered to overhaul its economy, transform its institutions and elect new leadership would face a momentous undertaking even in peacetime. To expect this of an embattled people living under foreign occupation, who are prevented from moving freely about, and who on average are living on $2 a day, is surreal.

No one is arguing that the Palestinian Authority does not need reform. It clearly does. There were and are unmistakable signs that the Palestinian people have been demanding this. Some view the intifida as much a revolt against the corruption and ineptitude of the Palestinian Authority as against the Israeli occupation. But for President Bush to make progress in the Middle East conditional on the election of new leaders more congenial to Israeli and American tastes is highhanded meddling that Americans would quickly reject if it were aimed at us. Make your reforms, turn yourself inside out, and maybe, just maybe, President Bush tells the Palestinians, we (meaning the United Israel and Israel) will give you a state of some kind with borders yet to be determined. A response of thanks but no thanks seems inevitable. There is nothing in this speech to give pause to suicide bombers girding for death.

As much as it is a blow to Palestinian aspirations, Bush’s peace plan is a clear victory for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who came into office with the intention of crushing the Palestinian Authority and replacing Yasser Arafat with more amenable Palestinian leadership. In the first objective, Sharon has succeeded. In the second, he is now getting wholehearted support from President Bush.

Right-thinking Americans of all faiths should feel challenged here. The challenge is to take up the battle for a fair and just solution to the conflict in the Middle East. That will mean confronting the political culture of the United States and the unquestioning support for all that Israel demands and receives from this country. No one should doubt that the United States is every bit as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. The United States spends $3 billion a year supporting one of the world’s tiniest states. That state now has one of the strongest armies in the world, which it uses to maintain an illegal occupation financed by American taxpayers.

Professor Stephen Zunes, chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, points out that the Palestinians have a far stronger case when it comes to U.N. security council resolutions and international law than do the Israelis or their American sponsors. However, for domestic political reasons American leaders and legislators have historically preferred to minimize the justice of the Palestinian cause and to turn a blind eye to Israeli abuses of human rights and international law. Zunes says liberals in Congress respond to grassroots pressure, and the peace and justice community has been slow to become as involved in the Middle East as it has been in Central America or other parts of the world.

It is past time for Americans in general and those in the peace and justice community in particular to commit themselves as fully to justice in the Middle East as to anywhere else on the globe and to campaign for a principled and morally credible U.S. foreign policy there. Does anyone doubt that if the United States cut off aid to Israel, the latter would be presented with some hard choices about maintaining its occupation?

The idea of the United States severing or even diminishing the unlimited flow of credit to Israel seems unthinkable in the current circumstances, but that flow of credit continues only because supporters of Israel mount a strong and effective lobby to which Congress responds. If sufficient public pressure were brought to bear on behalf of a more even-handed and equitable foreign policy, the conditions might be created in which the United States would begin to act as a genuine force for peace in the region, not the upholder of a Pax Americana that enshrines an oppressive and inherently unstable status quo. Catholic social justice groups, Catholic religious and Catholic laity should put changing U.S. policy in the Middle East front and center on their agenda.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002