What America must do to ensure Middle East peace

Secretary of State John Kerry has accomplished what many Middle East experts felt was not possible. As a result of his hard work and skill, Israelis and Palestinians are scheduled to resume negotiations on resolving their decades-long conflict in Jerusalem Wednesday.

It is not surprising that Mr. Kerry has given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a high priority. Like all of his recent predecessors as secretary of state, as well as past national security advisers, Mr. Kerry understands what most Americans do not — that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of great importance to U.S. national security. I did not fully understand that until 12 years ago when I visited the Middle East and talked with many civic leaders in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Only then did I realize that a key factor in the creation of terrorists is the perception by the world's 1.2 billion Muslims that American support for Israel is responsible for the continuation of the occupation of Palestinian lands.

But there have been direct talks many times in the past that have failed to resolve the conflict. For these new talks to lead to what is widely acknowledged as the basis for peace — a two-state solution based on 1967 borders altered by land swaps — enormous obstacles must be recognized and addressed.

One difficulty is that there is a significant minority in Israel that does not favor the creation of a Palestinian state because they believe — as stated in Genesis — that God gave Judea and Samaria to Abraham and his descendants, and therefore the West Bank should be part of Israel. This view also finds strong support among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who have actively supported settlement construction in Israel and opposed U.S. actions that would aid the creation of a Palestinian state.

Among many other stumbling blocks to a resolution of the conflict is that history has instilled in Jews the belief that they cannot trust their security to others. Yet another barrier — one seldom mentioned — is that Israel would lose 30 percent of the water it now uses if a Palestinian state had control of the West Bank. Also, both Israelis and Palestinians have been embittered by the violence that they have encountered. And a major hindrance is the political division among Palestinians.

Secretary Kerry talks about how peace will result if both sides make difficult compromises. Unfortunately, in my opinion they are too difficult unless the U.S. offers sufficient incentives, including:

•a public pledge that if Israel is attacked by another nation the U.S. would consider it the same as an attack on America;

•a grant to Israel to cover a significant part of the $15 billion to $30 billion needed to relocate settlers from the West Bank to Israel;

•financing for large desalination plants to alleviate a water crisis without requiring Israel to cut back on its subsidized agriculture;

•economic development grants for the Palestinian government; and

•compensation for Palestinian refugees.

It is unlikely that the United States would need to bear the entire cost of these subsidies for peace. If the U.S. provided leadership, many other countries would follow. But even if the U.S. picked up the entire bill, it would be an excellent investment in the future by decreasing the threat of terrorist acts. It also would result in increased visits to the U.S. by people from the Middle East for tourism, education and health care, returning billions to the U.S.

Unfortunately, recent polling indicates that 69 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should leave handling the peace process to Israel and the Palestinians. To resolve the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that view needs to be changed. American leadership is an absolute necessity.

That could happen quickly if the leaders of the main-line churches in the United States — all of whom have strongly urged President Obama to provide leadership in resolving the conflict — would themselves provide leadership in helping the president do that. These churches, representing close to 100 million Americans, have been relatively ineffective in social action since the civil rights movement because they do not focus on any one issue. If in the next four months these church leaders concentrated on informing their congregations of the need for American leadership in creating a two-state solution, the conflict finally would be resolved.

Jim Hecht served from 2002 to 2012 on the leadership council of Churches for Middle East Peace. His email is hechtjim@aol.com.

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