From May 10 – 20, voting delegates to the top policy making body of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination — The United Methodist Church — will gather in Portland, Oregon for our quadrennial General Conference.
During General Conference, delegates (elected from our annual conferences all around the world) will discuss and vote on Resolutions concerning church law as well as various moral, social, and economic issues. One issue certain to generate a good deal of debate at General Conference and publicity beyond, will be whether or not the Church should divest from Israel. Although divestment was voted down by a significant majority of United Methodists in 2008 and 2012, it will be considered once again this year.
For United Methodists, our concern with the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a natural one. We have a long and honorable tradition of commitment to social justice. As a United Methodist fully committed to ending the occupation and bringing a just two-state solution into being in Israel and Palestine, I view our task as twofold: We must work to end the injustice of the occupation and we must do this work in a way which fosters reconciliation.
Divestment fails on both scores. It will neither help to end the occupation, nor will it foster reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Divesting from Israel makes a clear assignment of blame. But a strategy which goes no further than assigning blame is not a useful strategy for ending international conflict. Nor is it a fair strategy in this case when both parties have at various times taken positions and made choices which have resulted in a perpetuation of both the occupation and the conflict. Pressuring Israel will not end the occupation, because Israel is not capable of making peace unilaterally.
The history of the peace process bears this out. The closest Israelis and Palestinians came to a negotiated peace agreement was during Bill Clinton’s presidency when he convened peace talks at Camp David in July 2000 and later presented his own final status proposal to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Washington, D.C. in December 2000. The Clinton Parameters for a final status agreement were based on what both the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators had stated were their respective non-negotiables in any peace deal. President Clinton’s effort ultimately failed when the Palestinian Authority was unwilling or unable to accept the offer, and the Palestinians walked away from a similar offer from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert in 2008. But the Clinton Parameters left us with both a model for an actual peace agreement and a model for the way that the United States can work with both parties towards achieving one in the future.
If a peace agreement ending the occupation is indeed part of our goal, then mainline churches would do well to use their influence to encourage a more proactive, yet even handed stance on the part of the U.S. government. Because a negotiated peace treaty is the only way to legally and effectively end the occupation, churches should encourage our State Department and President to take creative and decisive steps which will lead to final status negotiations around concrete proposals which meet the needs of both sides.
Additionally, as critical as it is to end the occupation, the goal of United Methodists must be not only the creation of two sovereign nations (Israel and Palestine) with defined borders, but two sovereign nations living in peace and mutual cooperation. This will not be achieved by a peace agreement alone. There will be no lasting peace without at least some measure of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. After over 100 years of conflict, terrorism, mutual aggression and almost fifty years of occupation, there is indeed very serious and very difficult work to be done in the field of reconciliation. But the work of reconciliation is a Gospel imperative and something all Christians are called to. Reconciling work is a project truly worthy of our efforts.
The debate at the United Methodist General Conference that begins on May 10 should not be about the tired and divisive project of divestment from Israel, which will only foster more conflict and discord. It should instead be about finding a more helpful direction, one which offers real hope for a new day of peace and justice in the region.
Resolutions based on this dual approach — both calling on United Methodists to advocate for stronger and more focused U.S. government efforts for a negotiated peace and calling on United Methodists to be a force for reconciliation — have also been submitted for adoption at the General Conference. I will support those Resolutions because I believe they provide the most faithful, constructive and effective approach to peace in the region.
Rev. Dan Bryant is the District Superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District of the East Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is a member of United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine (“UMCPIP”) and a delegate to the General Conference.