Peace and justice for the Palestinian people of the Middle East has been the life work of the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. Since first meeting him in 1998 at his Lutheran parish in Bethlehem, West Bank, my wife and I have followed his career, growing in our respect for his genuine compassion and positive leadership.
We have heard him speak during various engagements in Fort Wayne over the years, and renewed our acquaintance with him on our return visit to the Holy Land in 2015. Our understanding of the plight of the Palestinians was further enhanced when we hosted high school exchange students from the occupied West Bank during the 2013-2014 and 2017-2018 school years.
Founder and president of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, Raheb is the most widely published Palestinian theologian. He has been recognized worldwide for his achievements in the fields of education culture and health. (I recommend his first book, “I Am a Palestinian Christian,” for an introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)
Raheb commented recently on the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president and the changes he anticipates when a new administration takes office Jan. 20.
“The new Biden administration will not be able to end the American bias toward Israel because that bias is systemic, going across the Republican and Democratic parties,” he said. “It is entrenched into American culture, aided by the strong Israeli lobby.”
Raheb says some changes the Trump administration made to the detriment of the Palestinian people will not be able to be erased. That includes moving the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. Three years ago, President Trump delighted Israel and angered Palestinians by moving the embassy. That action set off worldwide diplomatic alarms and posed significant harm to the U.S. credibility as a mediator in the Middle East talks.
Raheb believes there are things the new Biden administration will be able to do to improve peace possibilities. He expects the humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, cut off by the Trump administration, will be restored very quickly. He said the U.S. consulate will be reopened in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian delegation office will be reopened in Washington, D.C., allowing U.S. dialogue with the current Palestinian leadership to be reinstated.
Most importantly, Raheb said, the U.S. will change the team responsible for Israeli-Palestinian and Middle East policy. Palestinian leaders have been critical of the role Trump’s U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner have played in engineering the most significant shift in American policy toward Israel and against the Palestinians in 50 years.
In January 2020, the Trump administration released its peace plan, which has been rejected by Palestinians because of its support for future Israeli annexation of settlements in the West Bank and control over an “undivided” Jerusalem. (Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.)
The damage is not over. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Golan Heights and an Israeli settlement in the West Bank (considered illegal by most of the international community). Since 1967, all previous U.S. administrations have treated the West Bank and Golan as occupied territory.
Raheb is certain the new Biden administration will choose a Middle East policy team that won’t kowtow to the far right-wing in Israel, led by longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another positive aspect about the U.S. election results, he said, will be the weakened influence of right-wing Christian Zionists in the United States regarding U.S.-Israeli policy. A number of mainline Christian churches — Episcopal, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Quakers, Unitarians, Church of the Brethren, and others — are more sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, while agreeing that Israel has a right to exist with security assurances.
An additional crucial change in U.S. policy will be opposition of the annexation of the West Bank by the Israelis. Raheb said Netanyahu aims to annex around 40% of the West Bank, including key resources like the Jordan Valley “vegetable basket” and access to crucial water resources. He compared the annexation plan to Swiss cheese. “Israel gets the cheese, that is, the resources, and the Palestinians are pushed out and get the holes,” he said.
Raheb said the new Biden administration will not be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will not be able to end the Israeli occupation, but the U.S. will go back to the mode of “managing the conflict.”
He feels the two-state solution is dissipating, while a one-state solution is a fleeting dream, too. “We live in limbo,” he said, comparing the situation as a system of apartheid.
There are two factors that are important in the near future for the Palestinians, Raheb said — Netanyahu’s future is uncertain (he has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and the third session in his corruption trial is scheduled for Dec. 6) and the performance of the Palestinian government.
Raheb is urging supporters of the Palestinian cause to engage now with the new administration, reaching out to leaders within both major political parties in the U.S. And he says it’s important to advocate through churches and within the African-American and Latino communities. “Doing this now is an important step for building a civil society that will stand up for Palestine,” he said.
In a recent lecture, “Palestine: Hope at Times of Despair,” Raheb, an Evangelical Lutheran, described how as in the Bible, Palestinians are in despair. But he has hope for future peace.
“The more I read the Bible, the more I was preaching, the more I discovered that actually the Bible itself was written in a context of lots of despair, war, exile, destruction,” Raheb said. “And you hear the prophets saying, ‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’ And yet, that same book, the Bible, is infused with hope.”