Religious Leaders Urge Bush Seize the Moment on Mideast Peace

Three dozen of the nation’s most prominent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders Wednesday issued a special appeal to U.S. President George W. Bush to appoint a high-level special envoy to work full time on promoting peace talks between the governments of Israel and the Palestine Authority (PA).

The leaders, who together represent 25 national religious organizations, said the recent realignment in the Israeli government and its plan to disengage from Gaza, coupled with Sunday’s election of Mahmoud Abbas to succeed the late Yassir Arafat as PA president, offer a major opportunity for resuming the peace process.

Progress was derailed in 2001 by the Palestinian Intifada and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s refusal to negotiate with Arafat.

The leaders, who make up the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, asked to meet personally with Bush and pledged to activate their own grassroots networks in support of his initiatives to get peace talks back on track and begin implementing the "Middle East Road Map" sponsored by the so-called Quartet of the UN, the European Union (EU), Russia, and the United States.

If Bush moves aggressively to fulfill his own vision of a "two-state solution," he "will have broad-based, bipartisan and multi-religious forces [behind him] across America," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The appeal was immediately endorsed by the special Middle East envoy under Bush’s two predecessors, Ambassador Dennis Ross. "While it’s not important whether the person bears the title ‘special envoy,’" he told IPS, "a senior official in the administration has to be designated to work on this issue."

"This is a moment to end the war between the Israelis and Palestinians," Ross said. "If we don’t transform the reality on the ground in the next six to nine months, then the moment is going to be lost."

The religious leaders’ appeal comes amid growing speculation here about the opportunities created by Abbas’ election, the entry of the less-hawkish Labour Party into Sharon’s Likud-led government, and Sharon’s commitment to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza by as early as the end of this year.

The Bush administration, which backs Sharon’s Gaza plan, has encouraged the Israeli prime minister to support Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, in contrast to Sharon’s refusal to bolster his position when he served as Arafat’s prime minister in 2003.

So far, Sharon, who personally congratulated Abbas on his election victory and promised to hold a summit – something he refused to do with Arafat – in the coming days, has cooperated, to the extent of even relaxing his earlier position that peace talks could only resume when the PA stops all Palestinian attacks against Israelis and cracks down hard against terrorist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigade.

"There is a recognition on the part of the U.S. and Israel now that you’re not going to completely end terrorist acts," said Lewis Roth, an expert at Americans for Peace Now (APN). "If Abbas sets up a political arrangement that accomplishes this, that’s fine. They’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as they see him making the effort."

Sharon’s concerns about the demographic and long-run political consequences of maintaining Jewish settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank appear to have persuaded him of the necessity of a two-state solution of some kind. He hopes to gain Palestinian cooperation in carrying out his disengagement plan in order to reduce his vulnerability to attacks by Israel’s far right, which opposes the plan.

At the same time, according to Roth, Sharon has made clear he is in no hurry to negotiate a final peace accord with Abbas pursuant to the Road Map which, among other things, calls for an unconditional freeze on Israeli settlement activity.

Under Bush, the United States has hewed more closely to Israel’s positions than it has under any previous president, going so far, for example, as to support the government’s policy of "selective assassinations" of Hamas leaders as a legitimate act of preemptive self-defense.

Bush’s staunch backing for Sharon has in turn been strongly supported by the U.S. religious right – both right-wing Jews and the mainly fundamentalist Christian Right – both of which exercise a formidable influence on Congress as well, particularly the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.

Since it became clear, however, that Sharon was indeed determined to disengage from Gaza and isolated enclaves in the West Bank, these forces, like their counterparts in the settler movement in Israel, have launched a major campaign against the plan.

Influential neoconservatives, such as Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal, the far-right Zionist Organization of American (ZOA), as well as a number of Christian Right leaders and lawmakers, have claimed that giving up Gaza would be the first step down a "slippery slope" that could eventually place Israel’s very survival at risk.

For now, however, Bush clearly is backing Sharon – one result of which is a growing split within neoconservative ranks between those who support Sharon and those who are sympathetic to the radical settler movement.

It is in this context that the mainstream religious leaders are calling on the president to take a much more dynamic role in pushing both sides to implement the Road Map, while assuring him that they will rally their own congregations behind him if he moves in that direction.

"Mr. President, based on the deepest beliefs in our three Abrahamic religious traditions and on past progress and current new opportunities, we believe peace is possible. And we believe determined U.S. leadership is essential for achieving peace," the group said.

Among the signers were the Catholic Archbishops of Washington and Baltimore, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the heads of the United Muslims of America.

"We believe we represent a large portion of the American religious community," said Rabbi Amy Small, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.