DETROIT—“The [Israeli] occupation [of the West Bank] is illegitimate,” declared Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “The occupation has to end and create a Palestinian state next to Israel. And therefore adding cost to the occupation is something that I find acceptable.” So far he had said nothing that would be unexpected from an advocate for the Palestinian cause and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority.
But the next thing al-Omari said was striking: “What I do find completely unacceptable is the attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.” The strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel “doesn’t fit with the idea of the two-state solution,” he argued. “It doesn’t recognize that Israelis are a very textured community. Among them, there are many who are pro-peace and there are many who are partners [of peace-seeking Palestinians]. And if we treat them all as one, and if we sanction them all as one, and if we treat an extremist the same way as a peace-seeking individual, we drive those who want peace into the same camp as the others. We disempower them. We empower the extreme voices. We empower the voices that say that Palestinians are not interested in a two-state solution.”
Al-Omari was speaking at a June 14 breakfast, just prior to the opening of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Detroit. The breakfast was sponsored by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, the main organization rallying Presbyterians against anti-Israel divestment.
The Palestinian advocate did not discuss the specifics of proposals being considered by the Detroit assembly. Aside from the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) recommendation for denominational divestment from three companies that do business with the Israeli military, there is also one overture that questions PCUSA support for the “two-state solution.” The overture appears to lean toward the “one-state solution” favored by some BDS activists, in which the Jewish state of Israel would be swallowed by a larger state of Palestine that might soon have an Arab majority.
Two states are ‘the only viable, dignified solution’
Al-Omari vigorously dissented against any such suggestion. “I believe the two-state solution is the only viable, dignified solution available,” he told the Presbyterian breakfast attendees. “It is the only way of creating Palestinian self-determination. It is the only one that will allow Palestinians to finally, after decades of dispossession and decades of occupation, to have mastery of their own fate.”
Al-Omari said he could not support “any motion that will undermine” a two-state solution, “any motion that will harden the division on the Israeli or Palestinian side.” He was convinced that BDS measures would have that effect of hindering progress toward peace.
The Palestinian advocate acknowledged that this was a time of widespread discouragement about the prospects for Middle East peace. After the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, al-Omari said “we have to start thinking about how do we generate hope.”
‘We are going to build a Palestinian state under occupation’
Al-Omari found hope in the fortitude of many Palestinians: “[U]nder all this hardship you had people who managed to be creative, who managed to maintain integrity, who managed to invest.” It is this positive attitude, he said, that “continues to animate and energize my involvement in this issue.”
“I think we do the Palestinians a disservice when we look at them only as victims,” al-Omari remarked. When people make that assumption, “we tend to see pro-Palestinian advocacy in terms of how can we inflict pain or pressure on Israel.”
But al-Omari preferred an opposite approach: “We need to think of how we can invest in Palestinians.” He identified himself with the policies of former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad: “We are going to build a Palestinian state under occupation and despite the occupation.”
The Palestinian advocate left his breakfast audience with this message: “At the end of the day, if you are being pro-Palestinian, you don’t have to be anti-Israel. And if you are being pro-Israel, you don’t have to be anti-Palestinian.”
A similar message from the other side
The next speaker at the breakfast, Rachel Lerner of the American Jewish J Street, echoed al-Omari’s words. She described her organization: “J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people. We believe that Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depend upon a two-state solution resulting in a state of Palestine living alongside Israel in peace and security.”
Lerner, like al-Omari, criticized the BDS movement “because of its refusal to acknowledge the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a two-sided conflict and its refusal to accept an outcome that results in both a Jewish and a Palestinian homeland.” For this reason, she charged, the movement “actually undermines the peace it claims to seek.”
“Justice for one people cannot come at the expense of another,” the J Street official insisted. “That is why Israel must end its occupation and allow the Palestinians the dignity and freedom which they so richly deserve. And it’s why supporting a Palestinian state should not mean and cannot mean tearing down Israel.”
Lerner deplored the failure of the latest round of peace negotiations as “another infuriating squandered opportunity to end years of violence, war, occupation, and injustice.” It is “easy and understandable to get overwhelmed by hatred and anger at the injustice of it all,” she admitted. But Lerner challenged her Presbyterian audience: “Isn’t it our job as people of faith who are commanded to seek peace … to cut through that hate and to not perpetuate it?”
The risk of misunderstanding
The last speaker at the breakfast was Syracuse University journalism professor R. Gustav Niebuhr. Niebuhr recalled that members of his upstate New York congregation had been “astonished” to hear of the anti-Israel proposals coming to this General Assembly. “Not a single person in that congregation had any idea that such plans lay in the offing,” he indicated. “People in our denomination want the whole church to condemn Israel? Why?”
The journalism professor predicted that if the Detroit assembly approved any of the anti-Israel proposals, Presbyterians in local churches would be confronted with news media asking them to explain the action. He feared that church members and pastors would be unprepared to give a clear answer. “If we are pressed to speak without knowledge,” Niebuhr worried, “we risk being utterly misunderstood and we risk destroying communication.”