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Activists representing over 20 denominations including the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches gathered May 20-21 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (photo: Churches for Middle East Peace).

Activists representing over 20 denominations including the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches gathered May 20-21 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (photo: Churches for Middle East Peace).

By Jeff Walton (@JeffreyHWalton)

Note: This is the second of two articles about the 2013 Churches for Middle East Peace advocacy conference. To read about the keynote address by Pastor Bob Roberts, please click here.

Dissatisfied with the U.S. Administration’s response to the Syrian conflict and the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East, speakers at an annual conference of U.S. churches looked beyond their traditional focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year’s Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) advocacy conference neither displayed the sunny optimism of two years ago, when the “Arab Spring” revolutions were touted as movements away from violence and radicalism in the pursuit of Middle East peace, or the outright dour appraisal of the peace process last year. Instead, conference attendees heard an acknowledgement of the seemingly intractable difficulties of the region while holding out some hope for the possibility of resumed peace efforts.

Diffuse Power, Uncertain Populaces

No longer optimistic at the consequences of the “Arab Spring,” panelists observed the revolutions had left “weak civil society in all states in the region” and “messy power situations” in their wake.

Leila Hilal, Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, described an “amplified demand for social justice” among the Middle Eastern populace. The former legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators classified changes in the region as “epic” with old powers such as former Egyptian President Mubarak dislodged, and power now “diffuse” in the region.

Hilal noted that the Muslim Brotherhood that now holds the levers of power in Egypt was accustomed to being in opposition, not in a governing role. Christian Copts, Hilal warned, were now undermined by the Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamist political scene.

“Other minorities in the Middle East look on nervously,” Hilal reported.

“Every country in the greater Middle East is in turmoil,” appraised former U.S. ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis. Noting that borders largely drawn in the aftermath of World War I do not take into account tribal connections that frequently transcend those borders, Lewis observed that “much of what is boiling comes out of the past.”

Speakers at the morning panel discussion also acknowledged that Syria and Iran are an increasing focus, with Phil Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace observing the Israel and Palestine are “not on top of the regional agenda.”

CMEP Executive Director Warren Clark also noted that the regional troubles meant Christians were suffering worse in Iraq, Egypt and Syria.

Lewis shared his disappointment with the U.S. approach to the Syrian conflict. Suggesting what was needed is an “LBJ-style” leader who would not admit defeat and “push Syrian intervention on people.”

“Many Middle Easterners don’t want to fight any more, they want peace. But when there is no prospect for peace, hardline sides fight,” Lewis determined. “If there is no prospect for peace, there is no incentive to hold back.”

A Renewed Effort?

Panelists had mixed views about a recent initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to ascertain if peace talks could resume between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I’m quite pleased he [Kerry] is making another effort, but pessimistic that it can lead anywhere,” Lewis exclaimed. “But it is important to try.”

The former ambassador to Israel determined that President Obama “got off on the wrong foot” in regards to Middle East peace, but was now “on the right foot.” In contrast, Lewis charged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “not an advocate for the peace process, although he knows he must give lip service.”

“I don’t think Kerry has high expectations, but he’s on God’s work,” Lewis assessed, adding that in time something may take place to give a ray of light. “Peace has to be a desire, we can’t impose it.”

Panel Potpourri

During a question-and-answer period, panelists were asked if it was Americans’ duty to seek “quid pro quo” for U.S. assistance to Israel.

Lewis reported that 70 percent of the American public and 90 percent of the U.S. Congress believe Israel to be a strong, strategic U.S. ally.

“It’s gotten to the point where it is unchallengeable,” Lewis determined of the prevailing wisdom, especially in light of the Iranian threat to the region. Arguing that U.S. assistance was “not a very useful lever,” Lewis quoted former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin “If you cut off the butter, we’ll eat margarine.”

“You can persuade, but don’t try to twist our arm,” Lewis interpreted of Begin’s words.

Hilal argued that the American public was beginning to question “the unbreakable bond” between the two nations as constraining.

Asked about a “one state” and “two state” solution, Lewis flatly stated that a one state solution was “not conceivable” and that the only alternative to a two state solution was Israel raising walls and “becoming like Sparta.”

“We have a de-facto one state solution where Israel controls all the key levers of power,” Wilcox chimed in.

Hilal raised the point that neither Hamas nor Fatah want to be unified, and that the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have the independence to form a unity government between the two with a blockade of Hamas.

Hilal also broached the topic of refugees, saying that the Palestinian Authority hasn’t demonstrated an intention to include them, or the territorial capacity to absorb them.

“No other refugee movement has maintained the claim that third-generation refugees have right to return,” Lewis observed of the Palestinian refugees unique claim.