Next Friday, 1 April, Peers will spend the whole day debating recent events in Libya and the wider Middle East. It is my job to ensure that those bishops taking part in this debate are properly briefed. Whether they use that briefing is another matter and that usually depends on the quality of the briefing provided.
Over the next few days, I’m going to post a series of blogs on those issues covered by this debate that might in turn provided the basis for my briefing. My blog on Friday last touched on Libya. My blog yesterday explored the situation in Egypt.
My hope is that this might stimulate wider debate about what you think the bishops, and in turn the Church, should say on the matter.
A copy of the briefing will be posted on Friday before the debate.The comments below relate to whether the current regional crises provide a moment of opportunity for Middle East peace. Let me know what you think?
- The popular upheavals of recent months in North Africa and the Middle East have generated substantial public commentary about what happens next. What type of regime might replace Mubarak’s Egypt? Will the Muslim Brotherhood come to power? Will Egypt become like Iran after the revolution? Will the revolutions impede or accelerate the Middle East Peace Process? These questions illustrate political uncertainty even anxiety as to how events might play out.
• Not surprisingly these apprehensions are particularly acute in Israel. Is Israel at risk of being encircled by an Islamist threat? Will a post-Mubarak Egypt recognise the peace treaty with Israel? Will this strengthen the hand of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank? Is the revolutionary change currently sweeping the Middle East a precursor to a wider Arab-Israeli conflict?
• The peace treaties that Israel signed with Jordan and Egypt were the result of decisions of individual rulers. What might happen if Egypt’s foreign policy was determined as much by popular sentiment as by realpolitik? Egyptian foreign policy might well change to Israel, but it does not follow that Egypt will rescind on the peace treaty or mobilise for war with Israel.
• Amidst this heightened state of anxiety opinion is divided on how best to proceed with peace between Israel and Palestine. Israel’s President Shimon Peres said last month: “Now is precisely the time to resume the talks between us and the Palestinians… this storm is also an opportunity for peace.”
• A few days later Israel’s Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset: “There may be a debate regarding the existence of a peace partner today, but there is uncertainty regarding the existence of a partner tomorrow. We do not know what will happen to our west, and we do not know what will happen to our east and who can determine whether the Palestinian state – in the middle of it all – will hold on?”
• Prime Minister Netanyahu has often claimed in the past, however, that true Arab-Israeli peace will only come once the Arab world democratizes. With the era of Arab autocracy now coming to end and a new era of Arab democracy just beginning Israel has a window of opportunity to make peace with the people of the Middle East, not just with their autocratic rulers.
• The British Foreign Secretary said following his meeting on 8 March 2011with Mahmud Abbas, the Palestinian President, that the “Peace Process must not become a casualty of uncertainty in the region”, and that “it calls for extraordinary efforts by the international community, for radical thinking about the region and for bold leadership from governments within it.”
• The UK Government position is informed by two considerations. First, that “the risk of conflict is significantly heightened in the absence of a meaningful peace process.” Second, “a two state solution is the only lasting hope for sustainable peace and security in the region, but it is possible to foresee that it will have an eventual expiry date if it is not seized now.”
• The second of these two points echoes the thoughts of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who has argued that “if the day comes when the two state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens the state of Israel is finished. Core to this thinking is the assumption that the long term challenges facing Israel if it does not achieve peace are likely to be far worse than the sort term risks poses to the Jewish state by pursuing such an agreement.
• The British government holds that “that there is an escapable need for both parties to commit to negotiations based on clear principles and for the United States and the Quartet to set out the parameters for a future settlement.” Such a statement should include “1967 borders with equivalent land swaps, appropriate security arrangements for Israelis and Palestinians, a just, fair and agreed solution for refugees and Jerusalem as the capital of both states”.
• The UK, Germany and France committed themselves to such a statement at the UN on 18 February following the US veto of a draft UNSC Resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied territory. Susan rice, the US ambassador to the UN told Council members that the veto “should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity” She worried that the draft “risks hardening the position of both sides”.
• The UK is now working with its EU partners to seek wider international support for this approach. The EU intends to table a settlement text at the next meeting of Quartet in mid-April. The goal remains an agreement on final states issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations by September 2011.The big question remains whether the US will allow the EU and the UN to take the lead in trying to resolve the standoff and that in turn is likely to depend on whether the Israelis give a green light.
• The Church of England shares the broad concerns of the British government and the anxiety that facts on the grounds are making the two state solution a less than viable prospect. Current regional crises provide a moment of opportunity for the Middle East Peace. Regional uncertainty should not lead to a defence of the status quo. Moments of crisis can prove to be opportunities for peace.
• The Government needs to give further reassurance that despite the ongoing fluidity in the Middle East and its present preoccupation with Libya that it remains committed to seeking broad international support for its strategy. The Government should also give early indication of how it and its European partners might respond should the September deadline pass. Are the UK and its EU partners willing to recognise a Palestinian state and support the Palestinian leadership’s application for membership of the UN even if agreement on final status issues has not been secured?
• The Church of England has a myriad of complex and varied relationships with the Middle East that have helped to shape over the years its response to the conflict. In the past there have been three complementary threads to the Church’s views on the subject.
- First, there has been the recognition that any solution to the long-standing conflict must be based on international law and human rights as enshrined in UN Resolutions and the Geneva Convention. International law recognises both Israel’s right to exist within safe borders and the right of Palestinians to self-determination.
- Second, the recognition that the ongoing conflict has had a detrimental effect on indigenous Christian communities, which need support through acts of solidarity and prayer.
- Third, the Church has a responsibility to facilitate inter faith dialogue as a way of encouraging greater understanding between the three Abrahamic faiths. In the light of this tradition, what can the Church of England do in the current crisis?
• With regard to the second of these two strands, the Church has become increasingly concerned at the fragility of many Christian communities in the region, including parts of the Holy Land. This fragility is illustrated by the recent steep decline in the numbers of Christians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank such that the sustainability of these communities is now in question.
• The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster hope to train a spotlight on the situation of Christians in the Holy Land by organising a two day international conference in London in July 2011, with a view to identifying ways in which Christians and other might contribute to ensuring the long term viability of the Christian communities of the Holy Land. The Conference is less an event and more the start of a long term commitment to journeying in solidarity with the Christian Communities in the Holy Land and their partners and institutions.
• That the two Archbishops are organising this international conference at a time when the British Governments and its EU partners are trying a new political approach to break the deadlock merely reinforces the urgency of moving towards a two state solution as soon as possible. A political settlement might not address the pull factors leading many Christian to leave the Holy Land, but it would certainly help to negate the push factors. It might, however, encourage many who have left the region to consider returning.