A Dawn of Peace in Bethlehem?

BETHLEHEM, West Bank–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 will have gone full circle from where they were four years ago, a low point in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Since then there has been significant improvement in both Israeli-Arab and Muslim-Jewish relations in the region.

By 2001, Christmas had become a casualty of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Israel forbade the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a Muslim, from traveling from his compound in Ramallah across Israel in order to be present at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas eve. Israel feared that Arafat’s presence might further ignite Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Tourists got the message. A mere handful of stalwarts huddled in Manger Square.

Again in 2003, a sparse crowd of about 1,500 watched the bagpipers, drummers and baton twirlers of Bethlehem’s Terra Sancta School parade through Manger Square. Most of the 21 hotels in the area were empty. The Bethlehem Hotel, accommodating mainly journalists and Palestinian Authority officials, reached 50 percent capacity on December 24, something of a Christmas miracle. Jerusalem’s orthodox Jewish mayor tried to lighten spirits a bit by arranging for free distribution of Christmas trees at Jaffa Gate.

While peace on earth has eluded Bethlehem in recent years, one should bear in mind the broader contours of events in the Middle East. Despite sporadic Israeli-Palestinian violence, there remain signs that peace in the Middle East may yet be in the cards, perhaps even this coming year.

Israel and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey continue to enjoy the full diplomatic relations they have had since 1949. Military ties have flourished. In 2003, over 300,000 Israeli tourists visited the Turkish resort of Antalya. In 2005, despite a terrorist attack, the resort has rebounded and remains a prime Israeli tourist destination.

Israel and Syria enjoy a frontier that has been casualty-free since l973. Indeed, the Henry Kissinger-brokered Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement of l974 may have set an all-time record for peace between two former Middle Eastern adversaries. It certainly hasÊ outlasted numerous peace agreements between Arab states.

To add to this small record of successes, Israel and Jordan signedÊ a peace treaty ten years ago and have quietly settled a long-simmering frontier dispute over an area informally renamed “Peace Island.” El Al Israel Air Lines services the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordanian airliners, unlike those of any other Arab country, have overflight rights above Israeli air space. Negotiations are under way to regularly export Israeli Dead Sea minerals to East Asia via the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Jordanian products to Europe via Israel’s Mediterranean ports, thereby freeing Israel’s port of Elat for a much-needed expansion of its tourist hotels.

Unfortunately,Ê Israel has enjoyed only a cold peace with Egypt since President Anwar Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem 28 years ago. Nevertheless, the current Israeli-Egyptian relationship is infinitely superior to the incessant warfare that characterized the 30 years prior to Sadat’s visit. An example of that cold but peaceful relationship is the reversion of the Taba beach resort to Egyptian sovereignty after decades of agonizing negotiations culminating in a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The former Israeli hotels of Taba are once again packed with Israeli sun worshippers.

And what of the Palestinians? Under the most recent accord negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice,. Israel has completed its withdrawal from Gaza, terrorist attacks against Israelis have diminished, and West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have just completed local elections under the supervision of democratically elected President Muhammad Abbas. The Palestinian president will almost surely make an appearance in the Nativity Church this Christmas Eve.

From all indications, this Christmas in Bethlehem promises to be a return to the festive Christmases of many years past, a hopeful sign in a region fraught with tension.

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