How can United Methodists be constructive agents for peace in Israel and Palestine?
As delegates to the 2012 General Conference of the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination gather this week in Tampa, this is among the many vexing moral issues they will be trying to address. Eighteen years after the elusive promise of the landmark Oslo accords, what possible role can the American church play in helping Israelis and Palestinians find their way to a just solution to their conflict?
There are many issues and much history involved, but a primary source of pain is Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank. The occupation deforms and distorts the economies and societies of both peoples and needs to end.
One prominent response within the church is built around the belief that the way to end the occupation is by pressuring Israel through acts of boycott and divestment. While that approach may have a certain amount of emotional appeal and may help United Methodists feel that they are doing something to help Palestinians, a closer and more thoughtful look reveals that these measures would only result in harming both of the parties.
The fear Israelis and Palestinians have of one another plays a major role in the perpetuation of the status quo. Palestinians fear Israelis, who have dominated them for years. Given the tenuous nature of Israel's existence in a region where it is surrounded by unfriendly countries and people, Israelis also fear Palestinians who have blown up their children in school buses. Yet there is no way under international law to come to a resolution of the conflict without the parties coming to some agreement.
To end the occupation, we need to help both sides conquer fear and sit down together and negotiate in good faith. Divestment and boycott against Israel or Israeli settlements or companies doing business with Israel are counterproductive because these measures place the burden of making peace entirely on one side, and a peace made unilaterally is no peace at all. Divestment and boycott will only increase Israel's fear and sense of isolation, making that nation far less likely to summon up the historic courage necessary to agree to a just solution.
Divestment and boycotts will also ultimately harm the Palestinians, as the two economies are deeply intertwined. A recent report indicated that Israeli purchases constituted about 90 percent of all Palestinian exports in 2011. Economic sanctions focusing on settlements overlook the fact that, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, 14.2 percent of the Palestinian work force was employed in settlements in 2010.
So is there another alternative? We are part of a group called United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, and we are urging the General Conference to adopt an engaged stance of encouraging positive investment in Palestine that can truly help pave the way for peace. We challenge United Methodists to commit to help build a viable nation-state in Palestine and help Palestinians make real changes on the ground in their favor.
Currently, the Palestinian economy is a closed cash circle, dependent on foreign aid to keep it going. Investment is not meant as a panacea or an alternative to a political solution. But building up the economy and infrastructure of Palestine so it can function as a sovereign nation and simultaneously encouraging a return to the negotiating table is far more productive than stirring up fear, isolation and hostility through boycotts and divestment that single out one party for blame. In this we share common cause with President Barack Obama who, while working hard to create a Palestinian state, has denounced boycott and divestment efforts.
United Methodists, and indeed all Christians, respond to the prophet Isaiah's and Jesus' message to bring release to the captives, which means building up the weaker side — not tearing down the stronger one.
Positive investment and a return to the negotiating table is something productive that United Methodists can get behind that will truly increase the chances of creating a sovereign Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel. This is a faithful, constructive approach consistent with our calling to be agents of God's peace. More information is available on our website at umpeace.squarespace.com.
The Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr. is Waynesville, N.C., district superintendent in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Rev. Chappell Temple is pastor of Lakewood United Methodist Church in Houston.