Catholic-Arab leader calls for peace process specifics

While Israel and the Palestinians signed the interim accords last week in Washington, an Arab Catholic leader visiting San Francisco warned the pact does not promise peace.

His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said at the University of San Francisco's Xavier Hall that the peace accords will fail unless real changes accompany them.

If no real change occurs in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, then there "will be many signatures and agreements but no peace," Sabbah said.

"As long as a definitive peace is not done, there will be opposition on both sides. When peace is a fact of daily life, opposition will retreat."

Sabbah shared his thoughts — as a Catholic Arab and religious minority leader — at a luncheon sponsored by the Interfaith Witness for Peace in the Middle East, the Jesuit Community and the American Friends Service Committee.

As a Catholic whose role is to reflect the views of Pope John Paul II, Sabbah said he has no political arguments with Israel. However, as a resident of the occupied territories outside Jerusalem, he is affected by political tensions.

"The daily life is not peaceful," he said.

Sabbah pointed to three major problems that he said prevent peace — the status of Jerusalem, leaders signing agreements before ironing out pragmatic details, and a lack of effort toward re-educating Jews and Arabs.

Sabbah offered alternatives to each of these stumbling blocks.

Regarding Jerusalem, Sabbah believes Israelis must grant it special status as a holy city — which is not the same as making it an international city.

"Jerusalem belongs to Israelis and Palestinians, so the local people should govern this special status," he said. "If it is to be a holy city, all should feel free there, at home.

"However, if anyone is made to feel like an outsider, he will in his heart and soul nourish a desire to return there. Even by force."

By giving Jerusalem the status of holy city, the history of Muslims, Christians and Jews closing off the city to one another will end.

"Breaking the history of conquest after conquest [to decide religious rule in Jerusalem] would be a step toward stability. But only Israel can decide," Sabbah said. "It is a privilege to give Jerusalem this special status."

The status of Jerusalem, like the rest of the Middle East, must be considered slowly, carefully and be spelled out in terms of specifics, Sabbah said.

Israeli and Palestinian opposition to the peace process is the result of "no definitive peace," he said. Sabbah pointed to Syria as an example of such opposition.

"Syria is saying `you want peace. One condition. We don't sign on principle alone. None of this `we'll sign and discuss the details later,'" Sabbah said. "If everything had been made clear in Oslo, we'd be enjoying peace now. Instead we're going to watch it step by step.

However, Sabbah said, Israel is still saying "land for security." Palestinians are saying "we'll wait and see." But the fundamentalist Hamas will not wait and see.

Israel must take the lead in allowing Palestinians to live in dignity and giving them economic independence, he said. Then Hamas extremism will dwindle "if peace is a fact of the land."

"Give the peace. You'll get security."

Still, Israel alone is not responsible for the future, Sabbah added. All parties involved in the peace process must re-educate their public.

He acknowledges the effort will be difficult, since both sides have been taught to see each other as the enemy.

"We're dealing with the psychology of an entire century that is hard to take away," Sabbah said.

He's urging "not just political leaders, but educators and spiritual leaders" to orient people toward peace. To accomplish that new perspective, "Textbooks need revision. We all need to welcome others as tourists and friends," he said.

"We must enter a new era."