In Bethlehem, Persisting Hope

When the Roman Catholic Patriarch of the Holy Land Michel Sabbah celebrates mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this Christmas Eve, events in the town and region will have changed dramatically from where they were just one year ago.

Last Christmas, following an accord negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which abuts Israel. Cross-border terrorist attacks against Israelis diminished, and Palestinians in both Gaza and in territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River completed local elections under the supervision of democratically elected President Muhammad Abbas. The symbolic presence of Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, in the Nativity Church on Christmas Eve was cause for hope among moderates of many faiths.

Since last Christmas, Palestinians have elected an Islamic fundamentalist Hamas government which has been at loggerheads with Abbas and his moderate, secular Fatah faction. Civil war rages in the Gaza Strip. While peace on earth seems to have eluded Bethlehem and environs for much of this past year, one should bear in mind the broader contours of events in the Middle East. Despite an upsurge in violence between Israel, Hamas, and the Lebanese-based, Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia, there are also peaceful trends in the Middle East. The following long-term regional developments — building blocks toward peace — may ultimately counterbalance the resort to violence which we have witnessed during this past year.

Israel and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey continue to enjoy the full diplomatic relations they have had since 1949. Military ties have flourished. In 2003 more than 300,000 Israeli tourists visited the Turkish resort of Antalya. In 2006 it remains a prime Israeli tourist destination.

Syria and Israel enjoy a frontier which has been casualty-free since l973, this despite Syria’s backing of Lebanon-based Hezbollah in a thirty-four day proxy war with Israel. The Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement, brokered in 1974 by Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, may have set an all-time record for peace between two former Middle Eastern adversaries. It certainly has outlived numerous peace agreements between Arab states.

Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty eleven years ago and have quietly settled a long-simmering frontier dispute over an area informally renamed “Peace Island.” El Al Israel Air Lines serves the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordanian airliners, unlike those of any other Arab country, overfly Israeli air space. Negotiations are under way to regularly export Israeli Dead Sea minerals via the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Jordanian products via Israel’s Mediterranean ports, freeing up Israel’s southern port of Elat for expansion of tourist hotels.

Israel has enjoyed only a cold peace with Egypt since President Anwar Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem twenty-nine years ago. Nevertheless, the current treaty-based Israeli-Egyptian relationship is infinitely superior to the incessant warfare that characterized the thirty years prior to Sadat’s visit. An example of that cold but peaceful relationship is the reversion of the Taba beach resort, on the Gulf of Elat leading into the Red Sea, to Egyptian sovereignty after agonizing negotiations culminating in a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Former Israeli hotels in Taba are once again packed with Israeli sun worshippers.

Perhaps most important, moderate President Abbas continues to serve the Palestinian Authority government in Gaza and the West Bank and remains a negotiating partner of Israel and the West. He will almost surely make an appearance in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem once again this Christmas Eve. This Noel in Bethlehem will not be a return to the joyous festivities of Christmases past. But at the same time, one should bear in mind the incremental building blocks toward peace which suggest better days to come in the region.

Dr. Jonathan Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and a writer for the History News Service.