The “Roadmap,”  like all previous approaches to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that depend upon a serial progression of benchmarks and negotiated agreements, has led to a dead-end.  

To the extent that the current attempt to get the parties to the negotiating table is a variation of this approach, it too is doomed to failure. At best, the Israelis, Palestinians, and the US with its Quartet partners are simply going through the motions. 

One obvious reason for the deadlock is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing or able to make the concessions that are needed to reach the agreement that virtually every informed person knows will be the settlement, if there will ever be one.

There is wide consensus among serious analysts and commentators that a final settlement will look something like what was presented in a letter to the New York Review of Books signed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Lee Hamilton, Carla Hill, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Theodore Sorensen and Paul Voker in November 2007:

  • Two states, based on the lines of June 4, 1967, with minor, reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications as expressed in a 1:1 land swap;
  • Jerusalem as home to two capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty;
  • Special arrangements for the Old City, providing each side control of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community to them;
  • A solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the two-state solution, addresses the Palestinian refugees’ deep sense of injustice, as well as provides them with meaningful financial compensation and resettlement assistance;
  • Security mechanisms that address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.

Thus, overtures, like a settlement freeze, that would build trust in another context prove ineffective when it expires and no movement has been made. Rather than simply returning to where the parties were before this type of confidence-building measure was undertaken, each side now feels even more strongly that the other side is not serious about peace and is not a partner for reaching and implementing a settlement that it could live with.

The Peace Process

The standard view for ending violent conflict and producing peace is that parties should engage in a “peace process.” This process starts off with talks about confidence building measures that the parties could undertake to pave the way to negotiations. Once negotiations are underway, the focus will shift to reaching initial agreement on less contentious issues about which there is some agreement. 

The hope is that future negotiations will then move on to more contentious issues about which there is currently little or no agreement. But somehow, with enough persistence, such negotiations produce a settlement, which is then implemented, and peace will reign. 

The so-called peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t worked for at least two fairly obvious reasons. 

First, Israelis and Palestinians don’t agree except in the most abstract terms what peace would actually look like. While majorities in both populations support a two state solution, they differ substantially over the details on a number of critical issues ― for example, borders, Jerusalem, and refugees ― that would determine the significant features of these two states.  The more the parties talk, the clearer these disagreements become. 

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis think that if a settlement was reached and implemented it would actually end the conflict and usher in an era of peace. Instead, a settlement would simply create a new, but unstable arrangement, in which the conflict would unfold much as it had in the past.

A more fundamental critique of this type of peace process is possible and desperately needed. This critique begins with the observation that, while the contentious issues that divided the parties can’t be resolved within a context of conflict (and the fear, hatred, and mistrust that are felt by both sides), they could be resolved in a context of peaceful relationships. 

Put simply, borders, Jerusalem, and refugees look different when viewed through a lens of conflict in which the fundamental existence of either or both parties is at stake than they do when viewed through a lens of peace in which the potential benefits of peace become sufficiently realistic to outweigh the cost involved. 

A new approach: peaceful relationships

This insight leads to an important re-conception of what a peace process should entail.  Instead of seeking to have negotiations that might produce peace, the goal is to create the type of peaceful relationships that are necessary to produce successful negotiations.

In short, the central task for a peace process is to give shape to the kind of peaceful relationships that make successful negotiations possible. But what could such a process consist of?

Based on 20 years experience in the Northern Ireland conflict and 10 years experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I believe that there are four questions that at the heart of this enterprise.  Very briefly, they are:

1)      The question of a shared future: Are the parties able and willing to articulate a future for the other side that it would find bearable?  No agreement, or at least no lasting agreement or substantial progress toward stable politics is possible unless both parties feel that it could live a reasonably tolerable existence if the other side’s basic aspirations were to be realized.  The vision of a shared future is not necessarily a shared vision of the future, which implies agreement about future goals.  Indeed, the future that one side seeks may be far from what the opposing side wants or would deem fair.  The goal is to create a domain of mutually bearable future with which the parties can live.  So fundamental is the presence or absence of a commitment to a mutually bearable shared future that we are inclined to call it the “peace question.

2)      The question of trustworthiness: Can the two sides trust each other to honor commitments and to take (all of) the intermediate steps necessary toward that shared future? In the context of longstanding conflict, each side feels that other has in the past fomented the conflict, broken its promises, and otherwise proven unable or unwilling to make the types of difficult compromises necessary for progress toward a settlement.  Given these sentiments, both sides face a critical question: What has changed to make things different?  Why should we now trust you?  In other words, both parties need to be convinced that a fundamental change has occurred, a change that now makes trust possible and even sensible, and a change that the other side is prepared to accept even if not unreservedly embrace.  Hearing the other side propose a future in which one is offered a bearable place and seeing other side act in accordance with that future can be that change.

3)      The question of loss acceptance: How can the parties come to accept the losses that a settlement imposes on them and thus make the compromise needed to reach an agreement?  A deep mutual sense of loss pervades the aftermath of virtually every negotiated peace agreement.  This is because a real peace achieved by negotiated agreement as opposed to one achieved through outright victory—one comprised of compromises, concessions, and tradeoffs—pales in comparison to the hopes and dreams that fueled the conflict.  Both sides tend to believe that the settlement calls for them to make important and painful concessions and offers them little or nothing in return while, at the same time, it requires the other side to concede nothing of consequence—certainly nothing to which they were ever entitled— and grants them virtually everything they wanted.  It is extremely helpful if both sides recognize and acknowledge the painfulness of the losses that the other side is bearing for the sake of peace.

4)      The question of just entitlements: How can the parties work together to alleviate or rectify the most serious injustices that the settlement imposes on the parties?  Every peace agreement imposes losses and injustices on the parties, and thus the fundamental issue is not whether the settlement is deemed to be just by the parties—it will not be—but whether the injustices is imposes are bearable to the two parties. The fundamental question that both parties—indeed every individual as well—must answer affirmatively is whether the blessings of the peace at hand are likely to outweigh the injustices it imposes.  The common task challenging both parties is to work together to make the answer to this question yes.

In our experience, peaceful relationships take shape as these four question are addressed to both sides’ satisfaction,

The activities of the churches

In recent years, there has been a flurry of activity on the part of churches that many church members hope will hasten a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of these initiatives are seriously misdirected. The intentions of those proposing them may be noble, but they have failed to grasp what peacemaking, at least in the context of intractable conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, requires.

A major part of the problem is that many U.S. Christians are content to oppose the occupation and feel somehow “prophetic” in doing so. There are so many obvious reasons for opposing the occupation that one can’t see how it is very prophetic or, for that matter, even morally courageous. 

The harder and more demanding task is to help end the occupation. The occupation will only end in the context of an overall peace settlement, a settlement that gives Palestinians the certainty of viable a state and a normal life, but one that also gives Israelis the security they desire and are entitled.

An end to the occupation will not come about simply by putting pressure on Israel. The end of the occupation will come about only in the context of a new relationship that offers the blessings of peace. 

Most church initiatives fall loosely under a strategy calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it:

  • ends the occupation and dismantles the security wall;
  • recognizes the fundamental rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and
  • accepts the rights of return for Palestinian refugees. 

U.S. Christians should feel the need to respond to Palestinian suffering. Their cries against the injustices they have suffered are heart-rending, and their desire for a better and more normal future is morally legitimate and compelling. 

Nevertheless, joining a BDS campaign is not the most effective way for U.S. churches to respond.

The trade-offs between peace and justice

In conflict, there are usually trade-offs between peace and justice, especially if the parties don’t agree about what justice entails. Having peace, unless it is a peace imposed by a victorious side, will require both parties to suffer some injustices. 

In all probability, the injustices that each side will have to live with will not be of equal weight (and certainly not of equal weight from the view point of the parties). The goal of peacemaking is to create a peace that makes enduring those injustices worthwhile. It is hard to see how BDS accomplishes this goal because it is hard to see how BDS by itself creates the relationships than make peace possible.

In this regard, it is important to realize that the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes and ancestral lands in Israel is a deal-breaker as far as Israelis are concerned.  On the other hand, for many Palestinians, a recognition of this rights by Israel is a prerequisite for any progress toward a settlement.

Part of the intractability of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is a conflict over what each side is right about.  What Palestinians and Israelis are most right about are the injustices that they have suffered.  The fact that many Palestinian refugees will not be able to return to their homes in Israel is an undeniable and tragic injustice.

Nevertheless, there seems to be no way to rectify this injustice in the context of a settlement that would ever be acceptable to Israel.  Instead, the task of realistic peacemaking must be to create a peace that makes forgoing the right of return a worthwhile trade-off for Palestinians.

Shifting the focus

A shift in focus from “opposing the occupation” to “ending the occupation” would launch a more constructive conversation with both our Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters.

There will be those who will prefer no peace to the peace outlined here. That is a legitimate point of view, but it leaves no option for any settlement that both side might find acceptable. 

Our task is to find those partners who will engage in the dialogues and conversations needed to create the peaceful relationship needed to reach the settlement that most serious peacemaker knows will be the settlement if there is to be one.

Churches should stop making pronouncements and start engaging in the dialogues that could help the parties give shape to peaceful relationships.

With two exceptions.

First, “Breaking the Silence,” an Israeli peace group, has recently published the testimonies of former Israeli soldiers who have served in the West Bank and Gaza. These testimonials document the cruel and humiliating treatment that Palestinians receive as part of everyday life in the occupied territories. 

The church has a moral duty to speak out against these abuses. While it is important to realize that Israel is not somehow uniquely inhumane in its mistreatment of Palestinians, it does not make them less culpable than other nations, including our own, that participates in such practices.

The second concerns the PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee’s deliberations on possible divestment from Caterpillar. 

Caterpillar makes bulldozers to Israeli specifications for the explicit purpose of demolishing homes in the occupied territories. The church should not be making money from activities that involve the destruction of lives and livelihoods

However, divesting from Caterpillar will not bring peace to Israel-Palestine or force Israel to make the concessions needed to reach a settlement. 

MRTI’s activities around Caterpillar could help bring to light the important fact that the occupation is much less benign than many would have us believe. 

But talk of divestment from Caterpillar and other corporations engaged in similar activities would have a much better chance of making this point if it left aside more grandiose claims that divestment was helping to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Rev. Byron Bland is senior consultant for the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation and is a lecturer at Stanford Law School. He is a member of the Presbytery of San Jose.