For over six years, we have rightfully blamed the Bush administration for its inaction towards resolving the Palestine/Israel conflict. While there is ample justification for skepticism, this is not the time for fatalism about the prospect for a durable Middle East peace. It is time to stand by those who are making serious attempts at overcoming the obstacles which have eluded many in the past. I have written about the prospects of the conference and I do have my own doubts. But I must be ready to give peace another chance, for it is the prize we all seek.
I am hopeful because I am witnessing a rather sustained and proactive effort on the part of the American government. Secretary Rice has been busily shuttling between many capitals. Who know whether this gathering may succeed. If it does, the entire bloody history of the Middle East stands to be revised, if not all together rewritten.
The American Arab Forum, along with several Arab and Jewish organizations, has endorsed the Ackerman-Boustany letter to Secretary Rice in support of the Annapolis peace conference. The letter (view full text of the letter) commends her efforts to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by convening an international conference this fall and calling for additional steps to ensure its success. The letter calls for "robust, hands-on U.S. leadership and diplomacy" and states that "resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through the establishment of two states for two peoples, is too important not to seize the opportunities that have emerged over the past weeks."
The joint leadership of Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and Charles Boustany (R-LA) represents the first Jewish-Arab-led Congressional initiative on Israeli-Palestinian peace in years, if ever, and the significant number of signers exceeds all previous pro-peace efforts in the House. Signatories include liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans and leaders in both parties (click here for list).
Arab and Jewish Americans have a historic responsibility to send out a very unambiguous message which transcends tactical differences in how we view the conflict. Here is an opportunity for both groups to work together . In fact, several polls have shown hopeful signs that such a collaborative effort, given some political nurturing, could rise to rival the hegemonic power of AIPAC. According to the 2007 Zogby poll, "confirmed that strong majorities in both the Jewish and Arab American communities remain committed to the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in secure and independent states; support a negotiated settlement to final status issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, and borders; and consider a resolution to the conflict in the US's national interest."
I call on President Bush to invite leaders from both communities to devise a pro-peace strategy. It is absolutely doable, since the majority of the pro-peace constituency represent the majority voice in both communities. This recognition of the convergence of the viewpoints has been silenced primarily by AIPAC and the Christian Right. Both groups see no immediate or long-term value to peacefully resolving the Palestine/Israel conflict. Our politicians need to know that we support a balanced policy in the Middle East. The curse of an AIPAC retaliation can be overcome by strengthening Jewish and Arab pro-peace forces.
The American Arab Forum fully supports the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian governments as they launch the Annapolis meeting in an attempt to revive serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations towards a viable two-state solution. But for Annapolis to be a success, it must be followed by a vigorously genuine U.S. diplomatic engagement: more intense and more involved than anything that has preceded it in the last seven years. Importantly, tangible improvements on the ground are vital if the Israeli and Palestinian people are to support diplomatic efforts at Annapolis or after. There must be a dramatic increase in freedom of movement and access for Palestinians, and a total freeze on settlement growth from the Israeli side; and stepped-up security, financial, and governmental reforms on the Palestinian side. The unbearable humanitarian situation of Palestinians living in Gaza must be addressed.
The pro-peace grassroots have no choice but to offer one simple message: Peace must prevail. We must not revert back to the previous years of diplomatic abysses. We now recognize their utter failure by declaring that there is no Palestinian partner for peace or unilateral withdrawal from some territories, combined with unilateral illegal Israeli settlement expansion in others. Peace and security for the Israelis will only come when the Palestinians' rights, in their entirety, are dealt with in a just and caring manner.
The hard work will start the day after all the photo-ops are concluded at Annapolis. That's when the world will be watching to see how serious all the parties - Israeli, Palestinian, American - really are about peace. That's when American leaders will be judging just how much support they have from their constituencies, especially American Arabs and Jews, for continuing down this tumultuous endeavor. Every Arab and every Jewish American has an obligation to declare their support for the peace efforts. Failing this, how can we expect Palestinians and Israelis who are at each other's throat to being the process of reconciliation?
Because we care about America's peace and that of the world, let us use this holiday season to pray for the success of the Annapolis Conference. However, goodwill amongst mankind will require greater political leadership and foresight amongst our leaders.
Aref Assaf, PhD, president of the American Arab Forum, a think-tank based in Paterson, NJ. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org