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Is there Hope for Israel/Palsetine?

Hope is not drawn from the world-that-is.  Hope is grounded in perceptions of the world-that-ought-to-be.  It arises from the power of the world-that-ought-to-be.  For Christians, the world-that-ought-to-be is the eschatological Kingdom of God.  It is expected in the future, in God’s time.  But, it is also in the present, which is God’s time.  The Kingdom is a perpetual possibility, even as its realization must be perpetually deferred in its fullness.

                For the Christian, then, hope is always present.  But this does not mean that we can always see a path to the realization of our hope, or even what exactly our hope would look like in its fulfillment.  One of the central questions of Christian politics is how to act in the light of our hope, but also in the light of the entrenched reality of sinful rebellion and injustice in the world-that-is.  How do we act out of our hope even as we refuse to look away from the power of entrenched conceptions of human interest, especially in nationalist, racist, and tribalistic formulations?  How does hope manifest itself in a world where a tension-filled balance of power is usually closer to justice than peaceful domination by any one party?  There are times when waiting upon God’s action is the only viable manifestation of such hope, but there are other times when such hope must be manifest in our own action.  Determining what is called for requires discerning the signs of the times.

                 In recent decades, active hope has been near the bounds of unrealism as regards Israel/Palestine.  This is because of the asymmetry of power in the relationship between Israel and Palestine.  Israel is empowered by its relation with the superpower of the United States, by its possession of advanced technology (especially nuclear weapons), and by its tradition of military victories in the region.  Palestine is disempowered by its lack of political unity, its historical occupation by its Arab neighbors, and its current occupation (and in the case of Gaza, isolation) at the hands of Israeli forces.  This power imbalance has allowed Israel to calculate that, despite the crisis of human and civil rights that it creates, the perpetual occupation of Palestine and the expansion of Israel into Palestinian territory is in Israel’s best interests.

                Throughout this time, the strongest card that Palestine has had to play concerned demographics.  Due to greater birth rates, Palestinians will eventually outnumber the Israelis in Israeli occupied territories (including the state of Israel).  As such, the world would surely, eventually demand the recognition of this majority, even as it eventually recognized the rights of native Africans in South Africa.

                This argument had influenced a wide range of Israeli politicians, including Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the withdrawal of all Israelis from Gaza in 2005.  The program was a diplomatic failure due to the unilateral nature of Israel’s actions, but it did signal some modicum of realism in Israel’s leadership.  Unfortunately, this argument did not seem to impress Benjamin Netanyahu, the present prime minister of Israel.

                In early November, Hamas, who is in charge of the Gaza strip, along with other militant organizations in Gaza, participated in an offensive against Israel.  Many, including myself, wondered what was to be gained by such an offensive.  Gaza attempted a similar offensive in 2009.  I was in Israel at the time, and can still remember watching footage of the Israeli strikes on television while much of the Palestinian portions of Jerusalem closed in protest over Israel’s activities.  Hamas and its allies were soundly routed in that campaign, and Gaza is still severely outgunned by Israel.  The current conflict produced to over 160 Gazan casualties (with as many as half civilian and near 40 children included) in comparison to 6 Israeli casualties.

                In retrospect however, what may seem significant is Hamas’ insight in escalating the current conflict.  Two aspects, at least, distinguished this instance of conflict from the last.  First was the advanced range of Hamas’ reach.  In previous efforts, the militants in Gaza have been greatly limited in range and targeting capability when firing their rockets.  This time, Gazans showed their ability to reach Tel Aviv, far beyond their previous capability, even while targeting effectiveness was quite limited.  The expansion in range was countered with Israel’s development of its “Iron Dome,” an anti-missile system, but it points toward the failure of Israel in restricting the influx of more developed weaponry into Gaza, thus suggesting the possibility of overcoming Israel’s defenses in the future.

                Second, and more substantively, the outcome of the current conflict reveals the significance of the Arab Spring.  During the conflict, diplomats from around the Sunni Arab world made it a point to appear in Gaza.  This complicated Israel’s military strikes, but also signaled a new willingness to become involved in the conflict at a more significant level.  More significant than this symbolism, however was the power shift that the Arab Spring has brought in the relation between Egypt and Israel.  With Israel concerned about instability in Syria and Jordan, maintaining workable relations with Egypt has become even more important for Israel.  At the same time, the demise of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of Mohammed Morsi has made Egypt more sympathetic to Hamas than it has been in the last half century, and more interest in the establishment of a long term two state solution.  As such, Egypt is more willing to open itself to the responsibility of overseeing Gaza, and provides a less enthusiastic partner for Israel in maintaining the isolation of Gaza.

                Whatever the culminating reasons, Israel was forced to agree to a ceasefire that appears to be moderately more conciliatory toward Gaza than previous agreements have been.  While vague, the ceasefire agreement  indicates that the future will improve the lives of those in Gaza.  In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, steps have already been taken to ease the almost total isolation of Gaza that Israel and Egypt had previously maintained.

                None of this is to say that progress is a foregone conclusion.  As recent internal conflict has shown, while Egypt has an important regional role to play, the country is still extremely fragile.  The rise of Hamas’ power produces more problems vis-á-vis its relation with Fatah, the current governing faction in the West Bank, and the de facto central party in the Palestinian Authority.  Hamas also continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.  In addition to being morally unsustainable, this position provides a moral alibi for those who wish to avoid diplomatic engagement with Hamas and Palestine.   Hamas has gained a number of short term victories due to its aggressive militant stance, the most recent being the current ceasefire agreement.  Hamas must now realize that, with the power shifting in the region, long term progress will only be gained by showing that it is open to compromise, provided that the compromise establishes the conditions for the development of a workable Palestinian State.  Finally, it is unclear whether Palestine, under the guidance of any political party, is ready to govern itself.  This is, in part, due to Israel’s fomenting partisan division in Palestinian society, and its inhibition of the development of adequate institutions.  Still, these are problems that ultimately Palestinians must face.

                Within this mix, America has a key role to play.  Barack Obama came out strong in the early months of his first term in favor of resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Later, however, with the erosion of political capital that came with domestic policy battles, he moved the issue to the back burner.  Eventually, in the effort to gain re-election, he came to as much of a publicly pro-Israel stance as any other modern president.  Since the current outbreak of fighting, Obama has been, unsuccessfully, attempting to play the middle ground: defending Israel’s almost unqualified “right to defense” while eventually praising Morsi for his role in resolving the conflict.  If, for his legacy, Obama wishes to make progress on Israel/Palestine, he would do well to take advantage of the emerging power situation in the Middle East to pressure Israel into negotiations more serious than Clinton was able to manage.  This would require more imagination and will than any recent American administration has mustered.  Still, the beginning of one’s last term in office is the most opportune time for exhibiting such will.

                So, is there hope for Palestine/Israel?  In the light of the coming and present Kingdom of God, there is always hope.  But there is also reason to think that this hope may be more fertile ground for action than has been the case in the recent past.  There is much work to be done, but hope must carry us on to the effort that is required.  We have seen enough of the world-that-is, and must yearn, and now act for a greater approximation of the world-that-ought-to-be.

Kevin Carnahan (Ph.D., Southern Methodist University) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University, Fayette, Missouri. His book, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion and War (Lexington Books, 2010) was reviewd by D. Stephen Long in Political Theology 12, no. 3 (2011): 477-88.

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Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University. He is President of the Niebuhr Society and the Book Review Editor for the International Journal of Public Theology. He has written articles for The Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Law and Religion, Political Theology, Philosophia, Studies in Christian Ethics, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He is also the also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010). In his free time, he blogs on a wide range of subjects.