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Likelihood of two-state solution in Middle East dimming, say two clergy


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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The likelihood that a two-state solution will emerge in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is narrowing to the point of impossibility, according to two clergy familiar with the situation.

"I never speak of a two-state solution. It's got to be two viable, contiguous states," said Father Elias Mallon. And by that measure, he added, the outlook is dim.

Father Mallon, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement who is external affairs officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, pointed to a number of current difficulties, such as continued settlement-building by Israelis in the Palestinian territories -- Israel, he said, now has total control over 61 percent of all Palestinian land. He also pointed to the lack of development in Palestine. Its economy is shrinking at a rate of 6 percent a year, Father Mallon said, and the typical Gazan now gets only six hours of electricity a day.

"We are in a hypercharged political environment that is further entrenching everyone in this political movement," said the Rev. Mae Elise Cannon, an Evangelical Covenant Church minister and executive director of the Washington-based Churches for Middle East Peace.

Both spoke during a Feb. 4 briefing on Holy Land issues at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

In the United States -- which moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- she said, "More people will get married across religious divides than political ones." Israel's politics, she noted, "are just as hypercharged," with elections around the corner.

"The same is true for the Palestinians," Rev. Cannon added, as Mahmoud Abbas, the president since 2005, has just turned 80, is in poor health, "and there is no one in sight to take over for him."

Rev. Cannon also talked about cuts in humanitarian aid for Palestine imposed by the U.S. government.

"Catholic Relief Services was one of the organizations receiving the largest amount of funds from the U.S. government. The U.S. cuts to humanitarian aid cut a five-year program for Gaza, which no longer can be done," she said.

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2018 background report on the two-state solution noted the USCCB's opposition to the embassy shift and the aid cuts and took note of Pope Francis' remarks last year to the Vatican's diplomatic corps: "Seventy years of confrontation make more urgent than ever the need for a political solution that allows the presence in the region of two independent states within internationally recognized borders."

President Donald Trump, like President Barack Obama before him, has proposed a highly pro-Israel policy to Congress, and lawmakers have been receptive, Rev. Cannon said. "Not that these policies are bad because they're in support of Israel. But they're bad for Israel's security. There's an argument to make, not just for justice for Palestinians, but for the safety of Israelis," she added.

The continued annexation of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements has been troublesome, Father Mallon said.

"The last time it (an annexation) happened was with the Crimea (region of Ukraine by Russia), and before that it was the Palestinian territories," he added, noting that when Allied leaders were carving up world boundaries after World War I, there was a formal annexation in 1918 for some of the land currently in dispute by Israel and Palestine.

"Then there are the de facto annexations -- 200 settlements, 420,000 settlers," Father Mallon said. "The first time I was in Israel in 1971, I thought they were tents or mobile homes," he said of the settlements. "No, they're like Levittowns," a reference to large suburban housing developments in New York.

With so many elements contributing to Middle East turmoil, one obvious solution would be to bring people together to talk about creative approaches to peace. But Father Mallon noted that some of the peace institutes in Palestine have closed, while Rev. Cannon said it is virtually impossible to conduct dialogues in either Israel or Palestine because the Israeli government will not allow participants to cross into the other's land. Instead, she said, those kinds of dialogues have to take place in the United States.

"One of the things that's necessary that's not there now is creative leadership on both sides. There is a real lack of brave and creative leadership," Father Mallon said. Where those leaders will come from is still a puzzlement to him.

"The Palestinians are highly educated people. We had graduates of Bethlehem University come over (to the United States). They were very alive young people. Some of the more cynical people asked, 'Are you going to go back there?' and all hands shot up. Then somebody asked, 'How many of you want to go in to politics?' All of them, even faster, said no," Father Mallon said. "That's not good."

Rev. Cannon said the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known in shorthand as BDS, has shown some signs of success. This is probably why, she added, that some state governments have passed laws making the movement illegal.

An Israel Anti-Boycott Act introduced in Congress is unconstitutional according to the American Civil Liberties Union, Rev. Cannon said. "I think it's important to note that BDS is nonviolent. We can't advocate for nonviolence and then take away something that's nonviolent," she said.

"Middle East Churches for Peace is neutral on BDS," she added. "But we now unanimously agree on the right to advocate in economic matters. It's American to practice your ideals in this regard."

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