Brian Cox, Tim Pownall and Michael Zacharia conducted a mission to Syria, Jordan and Israel/Palestine December 1 � 15, 2008 under the auspices of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and the Straus Institute to promote the Middle East Faith-Based Reconciliation Project.
In Syria the atmosphere was extremely difficult for American visitors owing to the hostile official relationship between the United States and Syria at this time. It was necessary for us to characterize our visit as "deepening relationships with friends". We visited an ICRD Senior Associate in Damascus, a former advisor to the chief of military intelligence, members of the Syrian Parliament, officials of the Islamic Studies Centre, a former advisor to President Haffez Al-Assad, and a Syrian businessman based in Saudi Arabia.
We confirmed the desire of the Islamic Studies Centre to continue cooperating with ICRD/Straus Institute when the U.S./Syrian relationship improves. They share our desire to see the work of faith-based reconciliation grow in Syria, but are restricted in their activities at this time. We explored a new channel for invitation to Saudi Arabia. Arrangements are being made for an invitation from either the royal family or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, Tim Pownall will follow up with Pepperdine's representative in Washington DC to arrange a meeting with the Saudi Ambassador.
In Jordan we followed up on existing relationships and developed some new relationships. We visited with senior journalists, a former advisor to King Abdallah, senior officials from the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front and a Latin priest involved in dialogue and reconciliation with Muslim religious leaders and scholars in Jordan.
The meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood are a key to the work of faith-based reconciliation in Jordan. We discussed the possibility of a day long meeting in May 2009 between a larger group of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and a larger group of American Christians. We established clearly that they view themselves as stakeholders in the Arab/Israeli conflict. We were invited by several indigenous leaders to work cooperatively with religious leaders in Jordan in promoting faith-based reconciliation.
In Israel/Palestine we followed up on existing relationships and developed some new relationships. We began by meeting with the Executive Director of Musalaha and had dinner with the Palestinian Core group in Bethlehem. During our time in Israel/Palestine we visited officials at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Municipality and Mayor's offices, an orthodox rabbi in a Jewish settlement community, the leaders of the Parents Circle Forum in Tel Aviv, the chief Israeli negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks, a retired IDF major general associated with a national security and strategic studies center, a relative of Michael Zacharia and her friends who care for Palestinian families coming from Gaza for treatment in Tel Aviv and for Arab Bedouins in the Negev, an Israeli journalist based at the Shalem Centre For Strategic Studies, officials of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, Popular Council leaders of Azzeh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, a senior journalist with Al-Jazeera based in Ramallah, and leaders from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ramallah.
Most of our meetings in Israel/Palestine focused on deepening our understanding of the core issues. In addition, in Syria, Jordan and Israel/Palestine we actively explored the best way to develop a track two initiative and to link it to track one official negotiations. In every place we were strongly encouraged to develop a track two process and interest was expressed in the nature of a faith-based approach. In Syria and Israel there were meetings with key track one negotiators. There is the potential to develop a track two channel in Syrian/Israeli indirect talks being mediated by the Turks. There is also a potential to develop a track two channel between Israel and Palestine that will focus on the two most sensitive, emotional and contentious issues: Jerusalem and refugees. In our meetings in Tel Aviv we were told that those two issues needed to be handled on a track two channel and then handed over to track one because of the intractable nature of them.
Regarding the development of a track two process, one must bear in mind that there are stakeholders in the conflict outside of the borders of Israel/Palestine. In our meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Amman, they had very deep feelings and clear expectations about the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem (ie. sovereignty) and the nature of an Islamic State in Palestine. In essence, Hamas is the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank.
The eruption of open conflict in Gaza at the end of December between the Government of Israel and Hamas is a tragic, yet complex development that we believe is being driven by strategic factors beyond the borders of Israel/Palestine and perhaps represents an effort on the part of both sides to reshuffle the deck in terms of future negotiations in the Middle East. How all this will affect the development of a track two process is difficult to know at this time. Conventional wisdom might suggest that it will make it more difficult. However, Brian's experience in the Middle East (thirty years) and our intuition tell us that it could open up new possibilities in the region (especially in Syria and Jordan) that do not presently exist as far as the potential for peace efforts.
Regarding the development of a faith-based process, it was clear that this would be a unique contribution in the Middle East diplomatic landscape. Clearly there is a need for faith-based diplomats who understand the theological worldviews and eschatology that inform and motivate key stakeholders in the conflict. There is a need for peacemakers who operate and reflect the core values of the Abrahamic tradition. In particular this creates strong resonance with Muslims. Secular actors on all sides of the conflict are so despairing about traditional approaches, that they are willing to "give faith a chance."
While we focused on understanding the core issues in all their complexity, we also discovered some simple profound truths that reflect the reality of the Middle East in December 2008:
The ICRD/Straus Institute Middle East Faith-Based Reconciliation PACIS PROJECT envisions utilizing the faith-based reconciliation process as a religious framework for peacemaking on a multilevel approach. On the senior level we came to realize more than ever in the Arab countries that we must engage this level and win their confidence before we will be allowed to have any success on the civil society or grassroots levels.
On the civil society level the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus, Fr. Nabil Haddad in Amman, and the Episcopal Diocese in Jerusalem appear to be the most promising channels for working with religious leaders.
On the grassroots level in cooperation with Musalaha we now have a Palestinian Core Group (Christians and Muslims from Bethlehem, Bet Jala and Bet Sahour) that is committed to a people movement among Palestianians of faith-based reconciliation to make Abrahamic values the future of Palestinian society. We have been invited to be part of the next Desert Encounter in Wadi Rum in the desert of Jordan in late April 2009.
The Parents' Circle Forum and the Tekoa settler community appear to be open doors to socialize the idea of faith-based reconciliation in both orthodox and secular parts of Israeli society. The contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Amman could be an opportunity to socialize the concept of faith-based reconciliation among adherents to Islamic fundamentalism.
Based on the fruits of this trip and resources permitting, we believe that 2009 needs to be a year of establishing the ICRD/Straus "presence" both in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East neighborhood. This timing is particularly critical given the hope that an Obama Administration will begin to actively promote a Middle East peace process. Hence, in 2009 we should focus on the following initiatives: