Since the year of my birth coincides with the birth of of the modern state of Israel I have had more than a passing interest in matters related to the Middle East for my entire lifetime. As a young boy I was taught that Israel came into being by an act of God, not an act of the United Nations. (I believe in providence but that is not my point here at all.) I also heard that the whole land belongs to the Jews and thus to no one else. (Only later did I discover that both of these premises were extremely debatable conclusions and that the border issue was beyond any reasonable conclusion that could be drawn from the pages of the Bible.) Once I gave up Christian Zionist interpretations of the Old Testament, in the 1960s, I began to study the question of Israel with renewed interest. I read histories, polemical volumes for and against Israel, and watched as each decade passed with no leader able to solve the tensions and crisis that rages over the existence and safety of Israel. I support the state of Israel strongly, but not because of biblical prophecy.
Recently I decided to read Jimmy Carter’s controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006). Though there is much to criticize in Carter’s policies from his presidency, and even more so since, I still believe he did accomplish a great deal in the Middle East when he got Egypt and Israel to agree to a peace process and then Begin and Sadat signed the peace accords. His accomplishments, like him or not, solved one major part of the puzzle, at least for three decades. Egypt, the greatest military force in the region, has stopped threatening Israel and the two nations have remained at peace. But even that peace is increasingly threatened now. This is partly why Carter seems to have written his book on Palestine. He, rightly so, does not want to see the gains of the 1970s lost now.
Carter’s book has been criticized severely. Even some employees of the famous Carter Center resigned over this book. Is it really as bad as critics say it is? My own conclusion is quite mixed. Carter’s greatest mistake is all too common. He fails to take into proper account the idea of "proportionality." He treats terrorism and violence as if they are committed equally on both sides. And the very title of Carter’s book is extremely inflammatory and misleading, seriously so. Israel does not practice a policy of apartheid.
But make no mistake about this one simple fact—there are Zionists who do use terror and murder to pursue their goals in the West Bank and for their view of the future of Israel. I believe that this is an extremely tiny minority compared to the more wide-spread militancy that can be seen on the Palestinian side. But, and this too is quite important, the vast majority of Palestinians are also peace-loving people who want a home land without the threat of people taking it away again. (This has included a significant number of Palestinian Christians who are our brothers and sisters as well. I almost never evangelicals express concern for these beseiged Christians.) This is why a Palestinian state has been legally called for since the UN created the modern state of Israel. And from the beginning the West Bank was not to be settled as permanent Jewish land. Certain kinds of Zionism, as Carter eloquently shows, have pushed many people away from this mandate and thus created a context where peace is incrasingly hard to pursue in Israel.
Just last week Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice lobbied Middle East leaders to attend a planned conference on the establishment of a Palenstinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This call is consistent with the policy of every single American president since Harry Truman, who was himself instrumental in creating Israel. Rice noted that creating a seperate state was "absolutely essential to the future of not just the Palestinians and Israelis but also the Middle East and indeed American interests." I could not agree more after thinking about this for my whole lifetime.
The primary enemies of this peaceful solution are numerous. They include militant Muslim groups that refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist at all as well as Zionist groups within Israel and the United States that pump millions of dollars into Israel to settle the West Bank and ensure that no Palestinian state ever comes into existence. Christians ought to take note of the fact that there is one very odd player in this resistance to peace via the two-state solution: evangelical Christian groups who believe God gave Israel all this land and any two-state solution violates God’s revealed will. Prominent ministers such as John Hagee lead countless people in this effort and influence far more American evangelicals than I think most of us realize. To question Hagee’s approach is seen by many as opposing God’s will. His profile grows by the day as he appears on talk shows and promotes more books on Israel and the future.
At the present time the Palestinians want a detailed document outlining the borders of two states and determining the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Jewish leaders want a more open-ended dicussion when the parties discuss all of this in November in Annapolis, Maryland. They oppose a timetable for transferring sovereignty to Palestinians. A fair-minded person can see why both sides have reasons to doubt the other and why such a process will be difficult beyond words. But only those who are ready to continue the present madness, and thus seem to want a war of massive proportions moe than real peace, oppose these efforts to find peace through some kind of two-state solution. As President Carter does make clear this solution has been the one that leaders on both sides, at least in principle, have agreed upon for many years. The will to do it, and the context to get it done, has broken down again and again. Now is not the time to give up.
Christians are called by their Lord to be peace makers. This is, in fact, a distinguishing mark of our calling. Thus Christians who encourage war are acting in ways that reveal a massive misunderstanding of the revealed will of God, if not outright disobedience. (I am no pacifist and believe nations have the right to defend and protect themselves.) I believe that it is time conservative Christians rethought their views of Armageddon and Israel in the light of present reality. As much as I disagree with some of Carter’s conclusions and expressed views I respect him for his call for peace. If we are serious about the Middle East we must deal with Israeli and Palestinian issues sooner than later. Jimmy Carter understands this quite well.
I thought I had seen everything until I saw a worship service in John Hagee’s church in San Antonio, Texas, where the U.S. flag was not only displayed in the sanctuary (and there were scores of flags not just one) but it was placed right alongside the flag of the state of Israel (there were scores of these too). Such evangelical zeal and confusion fuels the flames of war and violence and I, for one, am growing weary of this kind of political involvement in the Middle East. One thing I do know is that this issue is too complex to be solved by easy solutions on any side. At least Jimmy Carter tried to bring about a just peace and succeeded in doing so with Egypt and Israel. I wonder if any leader in the future will show similar courage and thus make real efforts to try again with this vexing Palestinian question. Until we do I doubt that we will see anything close to peace in the Middle East. We are specifically urged to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" in the Bible. I would love to see more Christians pray such a prayer and then act like they really believed that it can and should be pursued in the coming years. I wonder also how we will answer for our actions when we stand with Palestinian Christians in the day of judgment. Have we forgotten them in our zeal for Zionism?