On the one hand, there are the ongoing, well-publicized episodes of discord and bloodshed. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which abuts Israel, elected an Islamic fundamentalist Hamas government that is backed by a belligerent Iran and launches daily missile attacks against the farms and villages of central Israel. Hamas has simultaneously been at loggerheads with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah faction. Civil war rages. Along Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon, Hezbollah militiamen, also armed to the teeth with 50,000 Iranian missiles, threaten to rekindle the 34-day proxy war they fought with Israel during the summer of 2006.
While on some levels peace on earth seems to have eluded Bethlehem and environs for much of the past year, one should bear in mind the broader contours of regional events.
Despite hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the two adversaries nevertheless worked out a prisoner exchange after five years of negotiation. This past year has also witnessed the birth of democratic rule in Tunisia and Libya. In Bahrain, an absolutist dynasty may yet yield to democratic reforms.
Israel and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey enjoy only a cold peace, a vestige of the once-robust, full diplomatic relationship they have had since 1949. Despite disagreements between Turks and Israelis over the Arab-Israeli conflict, commercial ties flourish. The Turkish seaside resort of Antalya remains a prime Israeli tourist destination.
It is anyone’s guess what will happen in Syria. Despite pitched battles between the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority and Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim population, Syria and Israel continue to enjoy a frontier that has been casualty-free since 1973. 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 outlasted numerous peace agreements between Arab states.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty 16 years ago and have quietly settled a long-simmering frontier dispute over an area informally renamed “Peace Island.” Royal Jordanian Airlines provides regular service between Tel Aviv and the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordanian airliners, unlike those of any other Arab country, transit over Israeli air space. Negotiations are under way to 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 33 years ago. Nevertheless, the current treaty-based 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 Israel’s reversion of the Taba beach resort, on the Gulf of Elat leading into the Red Sea, to Egyptian sovereignty after difficult 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 importantly, moderate Palestinian President Abbas remains a negotiating partner of Israel and the West. Despite major differences, the fullest expression of this cooperation was Abbas’ handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this past year. The annual, symbolic presence of Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem this Christmas is a cause for hope among moderates of many faiths.
Jonathan Goldstein, a University of West Georgia history professor, is doing research and writing in Jerusalem. He has visited Bethlehem on many Christmases since 1984.