December 21, 2012


No peace in Bethlehem today

As we meditate on that first Christmas, we can picture in our minds Mary and Joseph slowly making their way from Nazareth in Galilee down to Jericho and then up the mountains to Jerusalem and finally to “the city of David that is called Bethlehem” (Lk 2:4). Other than the hardships of travel, especially for a woman about to give birth, it was a peaceful time, the pax Augusta of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.

Today, as we again celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, the land of his birth is anything but peaceful. It is a mess—and not only the small area around Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but also throughout the Middle East.

When Mary and Joseph went from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, they had no trouble. Today, a wall separates the two cities, with Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine—at least according to the United Nations. The U.N. declared Palestine a “non-member state” on Nov. 29.

The Vatican and the United States are on opposite sides on this issue. The Vatican immediately praised the 138-9 vote—with 41 abstentions—while the United States was one of the nine votes against. It sided with Israel, which said that the U.N. resolution “does not, and cannot, establish a Palestinian state or even grant it recognition.”

Israel went on to punish the Palestinians for seeking recognition by the U.N. by approving the building of more homes in Israeli settlements located within the boundaries of Palestine but captured by the Israelis in 1967. About 500,000 Israelis now live in these settlements.

The Vatican and the United States agree that the recognition of the two states of Israel and Palestine must be part of the solution to the

Israeli-Palestinian problem. The United States and Israel, however, believe that that must come only through negotiations between the two parties.

The U.N. vote was seen as a victory for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But his leadership is recognized only on the West Bank, not in Gaza. Islamist Hamas has reigned supreme there for the past five years, and appears to be even stronger after the recent sparring between Gaza and Israel. The cease-fire there was seen as a victory for Hamas, which has never recognized the right of Israel to exist.

When the Vatican praised the new U.N. status for Palestine, it also encouraged “negotiations in good faith” and “the sincere search for solutions which could become secure foundations for a lasting peace.”

Elections in Israel are slated for Jan. 22, and it’s likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister. Aside from approving those expanding settlements and the building of the wall, he has more or less ignored any possible peace with the Palestinians.

This could prove detrimental to Israel. As The Economist observed in its Nov. 24 issue, “With the rest of the Arab world becoming more democratic, depriving Palestinians of their right to self-determination is creating a powder keg that is bound one day to explode in the territories occupied by Israel.”

And yet, peace is possible if both sides could only be persuaded to do it. Most sensible people know what must happen. There must be two states, with the settlements within the state of Israel but with Israel ceding other territory in return. The two states must share Jerusalem. There must be compensation for descendants of the Palestinians, who were forced out of the country in return for the right to return.

At some point, Israel must come to an agreement with the Palestinians, if only for demographic reasons. The Palestinian population in Israel and the West Bank is growing faster than the Jewish population. Israel cannot keep the Palestinians as second-class citizens forever, but if it were to allow them

first-class citizenship it could mean the end of a Jewish majority.

Meanwhile, other parts of the Middle East don’t look any more promising, especially for Christians.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, under President Muhammad Morsi, is in control even though riots broke out in the streets of Cairo.

In Syria, the civil war has forced hundreds of thousands of refugees out of the country, and there is danger that extreme Islamists will eventually gain control there, too.

—John F. Fink

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