Seeking Peace in the Holy Land

The last days of January have been turbulent ones in the Middle East. Even as Palestinian and Israeli diplomats have been engaged in secret talks near Jerusalem and while behind the scenes negotiations are continuing in advance of the resumption of bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, three Israeli soldiers were killed in the Israeli-occupied security zone in South Lebanon. Tension continues, even if temporarily diminished, over plans to build a mosque very near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth [see Drew Christiansen, "Nazareth Journal" (Feb. 12, 2000)].

Multilateral peace negotiations were set to begin in Moscow on Feb. 1, jointly chaired by Russia and the United States. These talks bring together donor countries that are promoting peace in the Middle East: Japan, representatives of the European Union, and a number of Arab states, but not Lebanon or Syria. Even within Russian Orthodoxy, there is controversy over control of the Jericho Garden Monastery between the "White" church founded by Russian exiles and the Moscow based "Red" Russian Orthodox Church. The presence in the Garden Monastery of Sister Maria Stephanopoulos, the sister of former White House aide George Stephanopoulos and a member of the "White" church, puts a personal face on the complexity of the situation for Madeline Albright and Yasser Arafat, both of whom have become involved in the efforts to resolve the matter.

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It is this personal element that gives some hope for the months ahead. The negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians in Sheperdstown, W.Va., were immensely helped and speeded, as were the Oslo negotiations, by the personal exchanges, carried out without posturing for the media. And in the next months another personal element will be added to the complex mix of Middle East politics and negotiations. Pope John Paul II is due to visit Egypt in February and to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan at the end of March. Robert Tucci, S.J., an organizer of papal travel, has said that the pope's personal presence "changes mentalities and changes situations." When the pope visits other religious leaders on their home turf, he accomplishes more than years of dialogue can, according to Father Tucci. In Egypt, the pope is scheduled to meet the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, as well as Egypt's leading Muslim cleric. In Israel, on the West Bank and in Jordan he will have similar opportunities, and the "impression of great humility in exercising his primacy," which the pope left behind in Romania and in Georgia, is bound to be a major reconciling factor in the Middle East. The climate of reconciliation the visit may provide gives great hope for a softening of hearts among the parties who have been in dispute or at war, or both, for half a century.

The points of tension and conflict are great. In the Israeli-Palestinian talks the main points of contention are the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the issues of the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian refugees. Both sides are in an optimistic frame of mind that settlement can be reached.

In the negotiations between Israel and Syria, the sides are in dispute over what to discuss first--an Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, as the Syrians want, or the relations and security arrangements that would accompany this pullout, as the Israelis want. Although presently the parties are at an impasse, patience and mutual respect will be the keys to progress.

Americans should make no mistake. Peace in the Middle East will be a very expensive proposition. The United States will be asked for armaments to protect Israeli security and to aid in the relocation of the present Israeli security apparatus from the Golan Heights. It will undoubtedly be involved in monitoring the peace process, and this will not be for a short time. But even the greatest expense in money and material will be cheaper than another war, another oil crisis and the prospect of another half-century of killing and mayhem. Far better to monitor and to rebuild than to be sucked into the whirlwind of violence that is the alternative. And far better, in our generosity, to insist that generosity also be shown to the minority groups in each of the nations of the Middle East.

In the last month both the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's President Ezer Weizman have made optimistic appeals to all interested parties to press for peace. Arafat addressed his remarks to political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Weizman made his appeal to religious leaders. With the entrance of Syria into the peace process, he said, past prejudices and hatreds will diminish, and Muslims, Christians and Jews will be more tolerant and understand one another better. "The differences which exist will disappear. I am sure all churches of all denominations and all religions will have an important part to play." It is our firm hope that he is right.

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