My New Year’s Wish for President Obama

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 27, 2010

At a restaurant in Jerusalem last August, I listened incredulously as two prominent Israeli journalists explained to me that President Obama did not care about a second term. Obama, they told me, was going to forge ahead toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with total disregard for any political fallout. It was Obama’s nature, they each asserted, to put his ideals ahead of pragmatism, and the two-state solution was going to be the greatest achievement of his first – and only – term in office.

I disagreed, and I told them so. President Obama, like every first-term president, doesn’t want to vacate the Oval Office wearing the sad smile of a leader rejected by his nation. If any character trait of Obama is obvious, it is his ambition. Such men rarely put a cause ahead of a career.

These Israeli journalists must have been scratching their heads lately watching the president’s so-called “move to the middle” during the lame-duck session of Congress. Obama’s compromise on the Bush-era tax rates was the gesture of a politician who did not want to suffer the same fate in 2012 that many fellow Democrats underwent last November.

President Obama is a man who wants, badly, to be reelected, and who can blame him? For his effort, he is now viewed as belonging to neither the Left nor the Right. Conservatives will always see him as a committed leftist, no matter how deftly he scrambles to preserve his office, and many liberals now call him a traitor.

But I also explained to the journalists that I applauded Obama’s initiative in bringing Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table. During that week in late summer, politicians in both Ramallah and Jerusalem were whispering stories about the United States’ “strong-arm” tactics in setting a course toward negotiations.

Yet the failure of those negotiations thus far is not due to Obama’s pragmatism but a brashness not usually suited to foreign affairs. To link the entire negotiating process to a freeze on the building of settlements in East Jerusalem appeared to be a miscalculation of Obama’s from the start.

The question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem involves too many highly inflammatory variables and put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an impossible situation. Netanyahu was willing to pay a political price for joining another round of negotiations, but the U.S. insistence on a settlement freeze of indeterminate length insured the window would stay open only a short length of time. By late November, negotiations were being described as “deadlocked,” with each side blaming the other for the breakdown.

Still, there are signs that at least some Israeli and Palestinian leaders are anxious to return to the table. At a weekly cabinet meeting on December 26, Trade MinisterBen-Eliezer urged the Israeli government to get back to negotiations, “even if it costs us a settlement freeze for a few months.” Ben-Eliezer, a senior labor minister, went even further in stressing the need for more Israeli initiatives:

I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States. Then we’ll ask where we were and what we were doing.

The article in Haaretz points out that five Latin American countries have already recognized Palestinian statehood; more seriously, a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, drafted by the Palestinian Authority and unnamed Arab countries, has been circulated to members of the United Nations Security Council.

A copy of the resolution, obtained by Haaretz, states that “Israeli actions in constructing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and are the main obstacle to peace on the basis of a two-state solution.”

The members of the UN Security Council, with the exception of the United States, favor the resolution, which also “condemns all actions by Israel to change the demographic component, character and status of the territories.” A vote on the resolution will likely take place in January when the United States is replaced as the president of the security council by Bosnia and Herzegovina. America will be standing alone if it vetoes the resolution. Whether the Palestinian resolution passes the UN Security Council or not, it will have the effect of further uniting world opinion behind the Palestinian cause of achieving statehood.

Ben-Eliezer is pointing out the obvious: Support for the continuation of the Israeli occupation is waning. Keeping the status quo will only further isolate Israel and isolate its major ally, the United States. A few days prior to the comments of Ben-Eliezer to the cabinet, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in a rare television interview, told Israel’s Channel 2, “We should not give up,” and he thought it was “possible to get this process to move forward.”

A few days later, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for continued negotiations in a speech to Jewish activists: “The quest for peace is important, and my government shall continue to move toward this goal. We want peace, because we don’t want war.”

The stage is set for Obama to reengage the process. During the lame-duck session of Congress, President Obama displayed a remarkable flexibility in dealing with the aftermath of the midterm elections. My New Year’s wish is that he will apply those same skills to reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, making it his number one priority in foreign policy for the second half of his presidency. Obama can leverage the threat of the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements, as well as the likelihood of a U.S. veto, in pursuit of a new middle ground on the settlement freeze that brings both Palestine and Israel back to negotiations.

As yet, none of his political achievements has earned President Obama the appellation of “statesman,” but the pressing need for the two-state solution is his opportunity to earn respect even from those who abhor his domestic policy.

Christian Zionism, Evangelicals, and Israel

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 30, 2009

Rev. Stephen Sizer probably knows more about Christian Zionism than anyone in the world. At least, it seemed that way as we sat in the coffee shop at a Border’s bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Reverend Sizer has been an Anglican priest for 30 years, serving a parish in the UK with the quaint name of Christ Church Virginia Water.

Two of Reverend Sizer’s books, Christian Zionism (2004) and Zion’s Christian Soldiers (2007) are considered indispensible for understanding the steadfast support of U.S. Evangelicals for Israel. On the last leg of a speaking tour, Reverend Sizer was gracious enough to speak with me about the reasons why Evangelicals have become such a strong political lobby for Israel.

Reverend Sizer started the story with the “Six-Day War” of 1967, when Israel took occupation of East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. “Many leading Evangelicals, such as L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, welcomed that war as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” he said. In Christianity Today, Bell wrote, “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews, gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”

Israeli politicians, Reverend Sizer went on, seeing the opportunity for strengthening U.S. support, started courting leading Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson. Out of gratitude for his public support, the Israeli government gave Falwell the gift of a Lear jet for his personal travel. And with the election of the Evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the strong pro-Israel stand found its way into the White House.

The 1967 war was followed in 1970 by Billy Graham’s feature-length film His Land and the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-known apologia of Christian Zionism. The following year, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry organized the Jerusalem Conference of Biblical Prophecy, attended by 1,500 delegates from 52 nations. Welcomed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, many of the speakers proclaimed that Israeli control over Jerusalem was an irrefutable sign that God’s final “dispensation” had begun. For Reverend Sizer, the theology of “dispensationalism” among Evangelicals is what best explains the rise in Evangelical support for Israel since the 1967 war. (Dispensationalist theology is taught in the notes of the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.)

Dispensationalism comes in various forms, but the common thread is a division of biblical history into discreet “dispensations,” culminating in a final dispensation through which God will deal directly with the Jews when Israel has been reestablished. The Church, in other words, is distinguished from Israel, which is responding to a distinctive set of God’s promises. Reverend Sizer summarized it this way: “God has a separate plan for the Jews – there are two covenants, two people, and two faiths.”

Since Christ will not come to earth to establish His kingdom, and the Jews cannot be saved, Israel must be allowed to settle on the land given to the Jews by God. According to Reverend Sizer, this is the reason Evangelicals not only support the settlements on the West Bank but also help to finance them. Reverend Sizer thinks part of the reason President Carter lost the support of Evangelicals was because he began to vacillate on the settlements.

Reverend Sizer went on to explain that there were, of course, historical forces at work in forging the relationship between the United States and Israel. Until 1980, the world was split into two factions, communism and democracy, and “Israel was seen as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as our friend. As communism declined, Islam became the enemy, and the U.S. once again needed Israel on its side.”

Reverend Sizer disagrees with the dispensationalist view of Biblical history, as you discover in Zion’s Christian Soldiers, but he is not interested in waging a theological war with America’s Evangelical community. A gentle man with a ready smile, he wants to meet with Evangelical leaders, so that “we can all be made more aware of our working assumptions.” When I got together with him, Reverend Sizer had just spoken with a group of several hundred Evangelicals in South Carolina. “It was a delightful meeting, no one got exercised – it was a constructive conversation.”

Most Catholics live in a world well apart from discussions of dispensationalism, the Second Coming, and the role of Israel in the final days. But, as I learned from Reverend Sizer, these are not merely in-house theological concerns belonging to our Evangelical brethren; they are assumptions that have had – and will have – a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

A two-state solution means, from the dispensationalist viewpoint, that Israel would be denied its existence on all the land bestowed by God. That’s why Pat Robertson protested so strongly against Ariel Sharon’s removal of the settlements from the Gaza strip, and later said Sharon’s subsequent coma and death were the result of God’s wrath. Robertson’s outburst was unseemly and disturbed the Israelis, but it was evidence of the deeply held convictions in the Evangelical community that Israel must never give up any of the land gained in the 1967 war.

Remember the Palestinians

Deal W. Hudson
Published May 3, 2010

The Holy Land is a place of stories. Everyone has a story about Israel and the occupied territory called Palestine by those who live there. Many of the events are drenched in blood – often that of relatives present or past – which is why, when story is pitted against story, death against death, little progress is ever made.

Even visitors have their stories – not about death but about their encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, who sadly become the occupied and the occupier when you arrive there. For the past 43 years, Israel has exercised a military occupation over much of what we call the Holy Land. When visitors take the time to learn about the lives on both sides of the walls, barriers, fences, roads, and settlements that now separate the peoples, their stories will change – just as mine did.

Like most Americans, when I went to the Holy Land for the first time in 2004, I considered Israel our best friend, ally, and the only democratic nation in the Middle East. And, as a Christian, I’ve always felt a special affinity with the Jews; the horrors of the Holocaust were enough for me to justify the re-founding of the nation of Israel after World War II.

I still believe all these things, but without the naïveté that tells the story as if it were the ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ There are no white hats here, except for those mostly unknown individuals on both sides who refuse to yield to the hate that pits “Arab” vs. “Jew.”

I’ve been to the Holy Land four times in the past six years. I’m certainly no expert, though much of my time there was spent talking to those who were, including Israeli generals, journalists, rabbis, activists, and members of the government. On the Palestinian side, I’ve met with the present president and prime minister, members of the Palestinian administration, mayors of towns on the West Bank, priests, and activists. I’ve also had the privilege each visit of meeting with the patriarch, the papal nuncio, and the head of the Franciscan Custos. (On two of my trips, I was also blessed to have the late Robert Novak and his wife Geraldine in my small group.)

Most Americans know very little about Israel, apart from the typical boosterism they read and hear in the media, and those who go on tours are usually kept away from the occupied territory. Thus, the average American knows even less about life among the Christians and Muslims in the occupied territory called Palestine, a land encompassing places like West Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and, of course, the rubble-strewn Gaza strip.

Israel has occupied this territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and technically withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it remains the de facto occupying power by virtue of its military lockdown of Gaza’s borders. A limited degree of rule was granted to the Palestinian National Authority over the occupied territories in 1994 by the Oslo Accords.

As I consider how my attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed, the reasons all arise from the fact that Palestinian lives and property are completely subject to the designs of the Israeli government and the force of the Israeli military. There is no rule of law in the occupied territory – men and women are taken into custody in the middle of the night, houses and land are confiscated, centuries-old olive groves are cut to the ground.

Slowly, little by little, the fabric of life – knit over centuries in these cities and villages – is being torn apart. When they’re old enough, the children leave for other parts of the world, and their parents don’t blame them. Business and agriculture suffer, especially as the water resources are gobbled up by the burgeoning Israeli settlements, and the freedom of movement is increasingly restricted.

During Holy Week in 2004, I saw how the Israeli tractors dug huge trenches along the Mount of Olives to build their “safety fence.” The fact that this property belonged to convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools didn’t matter – one sister who objected to the unannounced early morning digging on convent property was told to “get back inside” with a gun pointed in her face.

If any kind of solution is to be found, Israel must respect all people’s rights, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This is no zero-sum game; there will be two winners or two losers.

The respect for rights needs to be observed even in the face of danger, such as the rocket bombings of Sderot that led to Israel launching daily bombing attacks on Gaza from December 27, 2009, to January 18. Yes, the citizens of Sderot had every right to be protected, but at the cost of 762 Palestinian non-combatants’ lives, including over 300 children? This was the nadir of the United States’ hands-off attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Israel has legitimate security interests – the wave of suicide bombings that led to the 2002 Intifada fundamentally changed the relationship with Palestine. But some of Israel’s “security” initiatives – like the barrier around Bethlehem – seem to be more about stealing land for settlements.

The fact is, there will be no peace in the Holy Land until the occupation ends. The chances of this have gotten worse rather than better since my first visit. Not only are Israel and Palestine at an impasse, they are approaching another boiling point.

Many Israelis believe it’s in their best interest to seek a two-state solution and end the occupation, and many Palestinians know that further radicalization of Islam will only ensure the occupation will last for years to come. Therein lies the only hope the region really has – that new leadership will emerge on both sides, tired of the conflict and ready to put aside old stories of violence and loss in favor of something new.

A Common Friend to Both – A Visit with Archbishop Chacour

Deal W. Hudson
Published August 3, 2010

Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Church in Israel is a remarkable man. Nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, the author of three books on religion, and now in his early 70s, he’s an internationally recognized leader in the effort to find a peaceful solution to the hostilities between Jews and Arabs.

“We don’t need anyone else to become the enemy of the Jews or the Arabs,” he told us. “We need people to become the common friend of both.”

He kindly received our small group at his residence in Haifa and spoke with us for well over an hour. “Why are you here?” he asked with a smile. By the time we’d left, we all had a better idea of how to answer that question.

Chacour was eight years old when the Israeli soldiers entered his Palestinian village in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. The village of Biram is in the region of Galilee near Nazareth. His father had prepared a banquet for the soldiers – he fed them and they slept in the family’s beds. After enjoying the hospitality, the soldiers ordered everyone to leave the village; their land and homes were being “annexed.”

The residents fled up into the adjacent hills and lived for several weeks until a group of the village fathers ventured back to ask if they could return. The men wouldn’t return for months. Eventually the fathers, including Chacour’s, found their way back to the families living in the hills near their confiscated village. The men had been put into trucks and taken to the other side of the West Bank, dropped off, and told never to return. They walked through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to rejoin their families.

The Palestinians took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled three times in their favor… only to have the military continue to block their homecoming. Finally, in 1952, they descended the hills to return to their houses, only to watch Israeli bombers level the town in front of their eyes.

“My father told all his children never to hate, never to seek retribution,” the archbishop said, choking back the strong emotions he obviously still felt from that experience so many years ago.

Chacour was the only one of the four sons to become a priest, thus fulfilling his father’s fervent wish. He studied in Paris for six years, returned to Galilee, and became a parish priest in a small village much like the one he was born in. His book Blood Brothers, first published in 1984, brought Chacour into the public eye leading to his appointment as archbishop (archimandrite) in 2001.

Before we left, I asked “Abuna,” as he is also called, if he had a personal message I could record for Catholics in the United States. You will find it here.