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Middle East

Low Expectations Follow Annapolis Summit

Evangelicals disagree on how to pursue peace, but agree that the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks may accomplish little.

Viewed as a modest success by some and as a failure by others, the Annapolis summit ended Tuesday with a decision by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to work toward a peace agreement by the end of 2008.

The summit, convened by the Bush administration to move forward a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, was initially expected to elicit concessions on both sides. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had expressed optimism that Palestinian president Abbas would agree to subdue militant groups and that Olmert would promise to stop further Israeli settlements from being built in the West Bank.

Expectations were tempered as the summit approached, however, and in the end, no immediate concessions were made. The summit did produce a document intended to guide peace talks through 2008.

Gary Burge, a Wheaton professor and author of Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians, said he was skeptical that any progress for peace would be made in the forthcoming talks.

"Palestinian displacement from land is a key to Middle East peace just like the Israeli need for security is a key for Middle East peace," Burge said, citing a key concession wanted by Palestinians. The "right of return" of nearly four million Palestinian refugees, mostly descendants of Arab residents displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, has never been agreed to by Israel.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the president of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), David Brog, said his organization was "comfortable with the outcome" at Annapolis. CUFI, founded by megachurch pastor and vocal Israel supporter John Hagee, had been "most concerned about the summit turning into a forum to coerce Israel to accept certain conditions," Brog said.

Christian disagreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back decades and is spurred partly by differing biblical interpretation.

In the weeks leading up to the Middle East peace conference, CUFI issued a "rapid action alert" urging the administration not to pressure Israel into giving up parts of the "biblical heartland." Some Christian Zionists, who see the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of the Bible's end-times prophecies, believe Israel's borders should expand, not shrink, to incorporate the full territory God promised Israel in the Old Testament.

In a message on his church's website, Hagee wrote, "At this point in America's history, we are plainly rejecting the Word of God because, according to Joel 3, we are helping to divide the land of Israel. We, through billions in foreign aid, are pressuring Israel to abandon the covenant land that God has given to the Jewish people forever. America is in the valley of decision, and we are making the wrong decision."

Yet even though theology spurs CUFI's support of Israel, Brog said, CUFI opposes land-for-peace trades not primarily for theological reasons, but for political ones. Brog said territorial concessions make Israel less secure, pointing to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which has since become a launching pad for increased terrorist attacks.

Burge, on the other hand, criticizes Zionists for overlooking the plight of Palestinians, a large minority of whom have long been Christians. "Hagee has put eschatology before Christian compassion for the suffering Christian church in Palestine," he said.

Burge contends that concessions are the best way for Israel to achieve peace, pointing to rapid growth of the Palestinian population that will soon outstrip Israel's ability to oversee it. "The Palestinian population will be enormous in 50 years," Burge said, "and Israel will not be able to sustain Palestinian settlements of that population."

Burge has also argued, in Whose Land? Whose Promise?, that God's Old Testament promises to Israel, his chosen people, are accompanied by expectations of righteous behavior, including hospitality to "the alien" among them.

Darrell Bock, a New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, which includes a dispensational understanding of Scripture as part of its statement of faith, said Christians can't be sure that Old Testament promises to Abraham apply to modern-day Israel. Dispensational theology dictates that God will someday fulfill every part of his covenant with Israel, including full possession of the Promised Land. Nevertheless, Israel has a prerogative to trade land for peace, Bock said, because God will bring about his promises in his own time and way, and not necessarily in the present day.

Before the summit, Notre Dame historian Mark Noll noted that the meeting was merely the latest in a long history of political efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. "Anyone who honors the Prince of Peace has to be in favor of some kind of success," he said. What constitutes success will remain hotly contested through 2008, however—among people of faith no less than the peace talks' participants.

Related Elsewhere:

This week's "An Evangelical Statement on Israel/Palestine" urged world leaders to work toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The New York Times published an earlier letter to George Bush with the list of signatures.

Christianity Today's September editorial on "What It Means to Love Israel" addressed theological ideas behind support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Other news on the Annapolis summit includes:

Much to be modest about | George Bush sent the Palestinian moderates home with little to show and less to sell. (The Economist)
Annapolis Over: What Does This Mean for Olmert? | On the plane home Israeli P.M. says country 'is finished' without two-state deal. (ABC News)
A Payoff for Syrians: Seats at the Table, at Least | In the post-Annapolis let's-make-peace-in-the-Middle-East world, the kitchen door may have cracked slightly open to allow Syria back in the house. (The New York Times)
Iran Casts Shadow on Mideast Talks | The Middle East peace conference here on Tuesday was officially about ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But there was an unspoken goal just below the surface: stopping the rising regional influence of Iran and Islamic radicalism. (The New York Times)

Christianity Today's previous articles on Israel and the Jewish people include:

Opinion Roundup: The Evangelical View of Israel? | Evangelicals are more diverse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than we are led to believe (June 1, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Zion Haste | Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East? (January 1, 2002)
The Chosen People Puzzle | When it comes to relating to the Jewish people, should we dialogue, cooperate, or evangelize? (Richard J. Mouw, March 5, 2001)
CT Classic: Do Jews Really Need Jesus? | What evangelicals believe about evangelization of the Jews—and whether the Holocaust makes a difference in that task. (October 8, 1990)
David Neff met with Condoleeza Rice in October to discuss evangelicals and Middle East politics.

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