Tuesday afternoon I returned by foot from an appointment in Downtown Washington, crossing the two-block stretch dubbed “Black Lives Matter Plaza” by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Instead of the now-ubiquitous BLM protesters in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, demonstrators in chequered black and white scarfs waved Palestinian flags. Nearby, television cameras captured a group of Orthodox Jews interviewed by foreign news media. A young boy held a “Jews for Trump” sign on the sidewalk adjacent to the Hay-Adams Hotel.
After three months of near-daily protest activity, I’ve become mostly oblivious to street activists. But these new neighborhood additions caught my eye. They were, of course, present conversely to celebrate and condemn the U.S.-brokered agreement among Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates formalized that day in a White House ceremony. Providence‘s Robert Nicholson has an informative piece hailing the declaration as the beginning of a new era of Arab-Israeli cooperation.
I’m delighted that the old paradigm of Arab-Israeli conflict is giving way to cooperation. Previously covert ties, forged as Israel and Gulf states pragmatically weighed response to Iranian mullah opponents, are now formalized. There will be many winners. The Administration openly predicts that other countries will follow suit: Oman (which hailed the Israel-UAE agreement) in the short term, and later quite possibly Saudi Arabia. Nations openly hostile to Israel in recent years have begun shifting direction – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hopes that Sudan, amid a transition into democracy following years of Islamist rule, will eventually open diplomatic ties.
Not everyone is happy. Those of us Americans in Mainline Protestant churches have, for years, been fed the line that Middle East peace is not possible until Israel enters into an agreement with the Palestinians. Activist groups like Friends of Sabeel North America, a regular fixture at Mainline Protestant conventions in advocating a strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to force Israeli concessions, are upset.
“The choice of the UAE and Bahrain to sign agreements with Israel formalizes their complicity with a settler-colonial country stealing Palestinian land, implementing Apartheid policies, and denying Palestinian human rights daily,” fumed FOSNA Executive Director Tarek Abuata in a Tuesday e-mail blast.
Sabeel, led by Palestinian Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, seeks to advance a “Revolutionary Palestinian Liberation Theology” that presents Jesus Christ not as an atoning sacrifice reconciling God and humanity, but rather as a political revolutionary intent on overthrowing the forces of “empire”. In Jesus’ time, this was Rome, today Sabeel sees Israel and – by extension – the United States as the forces of “empire”.
“In a moment when Black Lives Matter and other marginalized communities are calling for a reprioritization of funds to basic community needs instead of policing and militarism, we condemn this agreement, which does the opposite,” Abuata wrote. “Already two Israeli banks who finance the illegal Israeli settlements have opened in the UAE. In response, we call on denominations, institutions, and cities to follow the lead of the United Methodist Church in divesting from Israeli banks.”
This is an overstatement. Advocates of BDS have been unsuccessful before the United Methodist General Conference, the only body that speaks for the entire denomination. Where FOSNA and allied groups have trumpeted victories, actual divestment from targeted companies by denominational pension boards has not usually followed.
BDS advocates also predicted inflamed Middle East tensions following the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That move – authorized by Congress decades before but delayed by successive U.S. administrations – was put into place by President Donald Trump, with little in the way of actual pushback from Arab states.
Other Mainline Protestant groups have also offered objections.
“This is a business deal. The UAE sold out Palestinians, and now it’s in the open,” tweeted the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a regular antagonist of the Jewish state.
In January, PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II denounced Trump’s Middle East peace plan, arguing “This ‘deal’ is little more than a cynical rephrasing of the conditions that have kept the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation for decades. It codifies Israel’s egregious theft of Palestinian land and would continue Israel’s military rule, even over the areas allocated to the so-called Palestinian state.”
Advocacy staff from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have not directly condemned the UAE-Israel peace agreement, but have expressed concern that Israel’s agreeing to “suspend” annexation of West Bank lands “will not halt Israel’s de facto annexation or ongoing military occupation as Israel continues to build illegal settlements in the West Bank, demolish Palestinian homes and violate Palestinians’ rights.”
Apparently this is a talking point circulated among church lobby offices: the same concerns were echoed word-for-word by Global Ministries, the shared public policy office of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).