From the Chicago Tribune


Release Middle East from the professionals

By Marda Dunsky.
Marda Dunsky is an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

February 3, 2002

It is difficult to imagine how the current state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians could be worse.

On a near daily basis, we open our newspapers and turn on our televisions to find news of another calamity. People are blown apart on buses and in the streets. People's homes are demolished. They live in a state of siege. Sections of towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are systematically reduced to rubble by sophisticated weapons of war.

Much is made of the notion of a "cycle of violence" in which the two combatants are said to be locked in a death grip that knows only pauses but no end, because they hate each other more than they love peace.

Is there a way out?

It seems clear that a resolution of the conflict is beyond the means and reach of the parties themselves. But it is equally clear that U.S. Middle East policy, despite the democratic cycling of officeholders through the White House and Congress over decades, has not been able to crack the nut of the most intractable modern conflict.

This is so because U.S. Middle East policy has ceased to be--if indeed it ever was--conducted in the interests of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples themselves, or with regard to the sentiments of the American people as a whole.

Instead the policy is driven by a militaristic Cold War approach to U.S. hegemony in this most strategic of regions, by the interests of Big Capital--particularly the oil and defense industries--and by the interests of faith-based lobby groups.

Delegations and diplomats

The State Department continues to fiddle while Rome burns. It sends delegations and diplomats to the region who have little if any chance of succeeding in crisis management as long as the structural underpinnings of the conflict--which originate in Washington, not Tel Aviv or Ramallah--do not change.

The result is that the knot of conflict is pulled ever tighter.

For decades the United States has supplied inordinate quantities of advanced weaponry and other types of aid to the stronger party to the conflict. The U.S. has exercised a policy of strong-arm, exclusionary diplomacy in order to shield the stronger party from international censure over its political and military actions toward the weaker.

Almost as frequently as acts of abominable violence against innocents are played out on the streets of Gaza and Jerusalem, acts of intellectual inquiry into the conflict are played out in this country. Panel discussions, lectures and conferences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regularly fill church basements, community halls and college auditoriums.

Perhaps within civil society lies the key.

It is incumbent on American women and men of secular goodwill and religious faith to come together to rescue the peace process from the compromised values of U.S. Mideast policy. The stakes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become so high that policymaking cannot be left solely to the so-called professionals.

American civil society must not succumb to the numbness induced by yet another image of bloodied Israeli bodies hoisted into ambulances on the streets of Hadera or of Palestinian corpses lofted high above funeral throngs on the streets of Nablus.

Members of churches, synagogues and mosques; leaders and supporters of non-governmental organizations dedicated to human-rights and relief efforts; scholars of international law, human rights and diplomacy; and members of relevant student groups and professional associations must unite to build a coalition determined to set right the course of a hijacked Middle East peace policy.

They must move from the safety of academic discussions to a plan of political action.

As Jews, Muslims and Christians, as secular humanitarians and scholars--but first and foremost as taxpaying American citizens--people from all quarters of civil society must unite to proclaim "Not in our name!" will we allow a deliberately skewed and deceptive policy to prolong the hemorrhage of the conflict and to misrepresent or ignore our sentiments about how to stanch it.

Citizen groups

Across the country are scores of citizen-funded advocacy groups devoted to Middle East peace. Some have professional, salaried leadership and government-bestowed tax-exempt status; others are voluntary and less formal. At least a dozen such non-governmental organizations, which devote all or part of their efforts to Middle East peace and represent a variety of denominational and secular views, exist in the Chicago area alone.

What is needed among them is a new vision that will yield a de-Balkanization of the Mideast advocacy process, fueled by an understanding that only collective action can reconfigure the superstructure to achieve political change.

The fundamental mission of such an initiative--let's call it Civil Society for Middle East Peace, or CISMEP for short--would be to democratize U.S. Mideast policymaking and hold it accountable to public sentiment on a much broader basis than it is now.

A critical mass achieved by the coming together of peace advocates would not only empower concerned citizens. It also would liberate their elected representatives from the fear that they will lose their mandates and seats of power by daring to question the status quo on this most delicate of political issues.

Without trying to impose a specific formula for peace--which must be determined through negotiations by the parties to the conflict themselves--CISMEP would demand transparency in the U.S. role in brokering that peace.

Given the dire realities playing out on Middle East ground, CISMEP should call first for the immediate deployment of an international peacekeeping and observer force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, parallel to that advocated by the U.S. and being established in Afghanistan.

Next CISMEP should focus its attention on the relationship between U.S. Mideast policy and U.S. commitment to its law and to international law.

It should repeat and reinforce the call issued by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in June for congressional hearings into whether Israel's use of U.S.-supplied weaponry against Palestinian targets is legally consistent with the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.

Congressional hearings

Similarly, it also should call for congressional hearings into the legality of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as the Jewish "neighborhoods" built in East Jerusalem since 1967 according to the relevant instruments of international law and UN resolutions to which the U.S. is a signatory.

In recognition of the link between public opinion and foreign policy at home, CISMEP should call on U.S. news media to practice a policy of inclusion and diversity in their reporting of the conflict.

And when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resume, CISMEP should call on the State Department to release to the media detailed maps of all territorial proposals endorsed by the United States. Then the American public could judge for itself.

Finally, in recognition that the U.S. monopoly over stewardship of the peace process will continue to fail, CISMEP should sponsor forums featuring European Union officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations from EU countries. Then the American public could see that allied minds think differently on how to achieve Mideast peace.

Sound grandiose? American civil society has a history of success in tackling other important political issues, both foreign and domestic.

A page can be taken from the book of the progressive globalization movement, which has learned that even a juggernaut can be made to yield by a critical mass of citizen voices.

Whose peace process is it, anyway?

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune