Leave Well Alone: Prospects for War and Peace in the Middle East

In today’s Guardian newspaper, an editorial reports on a speech given by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo on the new US strategy of “Real Deterrence”

“Pompeo says killing of Suleimani is part of ‘bigger strategy’ to deter US foes… His speech, The Restoration of Deterrence: The Iranian Example, focused on what he called a Trump administration strategy to establish “real deterrence” against Iran…”[1]

Our subject tonight is “Leave well alone: Prospects of war and peace in the Middle East”.  The reality is that there are already multiple regional conflicts being fought in the Middle East today. 
The two words that sum up prospects for 2020 are not ‘war and peace’ but rather ‘proliferation and escalation’. The only question is where next? It could be Libya, or Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq – all burdened by the unwelcome presence of foreign military forces. Then there are those Middle East countries facing civil unrest, whether from popular dissent or from external sanctions or attempts to destabilise their governments. These include Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon and Qatar. Any one of these regional hot spots could be the spark that ignites the Middle East in 2020. 

And I haven’t yet mentioned the most likely epicentre – namely Palestine. Here there are so many volatile factors that could so easily provide the spark.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing indictment on charges of bribery, corruption and breach of trust. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and was previously a deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council. Writing in Haaretz in December, Brom warned,

“The Prime Minister needs a win in the next elections, and initiating a major conflict with Iran may be his only hope to convince Israelis that there is no alternative to his leadership… Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to place Israel’s conflict with Iran at the center of his recent election campaigns has been causing much concern that his rhetoric might further inflame tensions with Tehran. Netanyahu presents himself as the only one who can protect Israel from what he describes as an existential threat posed by Iran …The concern is that he could initiate a major armed conflict with Iran in the hope of convincing the Israeli electorate that there is no substitute to his leadership in spite of the costs to Israel of such a war.”[2]

Netanyahu and other Israeli political and military figures have even more reason to distract attention by starting another war. That is because they are very likely be indicted by the International Criminal Court on War Crimes charges this year.  Bel Trew, reporting for the Independent in December wrote, 

“A full investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories is to be launched by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, prompting a fierce backlash from Israel. Fatou Bensouda said the probe could result in charges against both Israelis and Palestinians. “I am satisfied that … war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” … Bensouda added that because the Palestinian Territories had requested the intervention of the court she did not need to request approval from judges to start an investigation. However, she has asked the ICC’s pre-trial chamber to rule on what geographical location it can investigate. The probe will be launched pending a decision on geographical jurisdiction.”[3]

And if another reason were needed, just last month the US administration gave Netanyahu the green light to annexe the Jordan Valley and illegal settlement blocks. 

“Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered one such free gift by stating that the US no longer considers Israeli colonies in the West Bank as illegal or in violation of international law. Netanyahu called Trump to thank him for this decision which has infuriated the Palestinians and was rejected by the Arab League, the EU and most world capitals including Moscow and Beijing. Following last Sunday’s call it now appears that Netanyahu may have received the green light to go ahead with his annexation plan once the political dust settles in Israel.”[4]

But why has the US administration’s foreign policy been such a controversial and divisive force in the Middle East for so long? 

I believe it has to do with the close relationship between the US and Israel. Donald Trump has probably accomplished more for Israel in his short time in office than any other US President since Harry Truman unilaterally recognised the State of Israel in May 1948. President Truman did so, going against the advice of his State Department, US Mission to the United Nations and ambassadors in the Middle East. President Trump seems to have continued this tradition with gusto. In December 2017, for example, reversing decades of US foreign policy, President Trump announced the United States recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  On 14 May 2018 – the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding – the US officially moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Also, in May 2018, President Trump announced that he was unilaterally withdrawing the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran nuclear deal.  In August 2018, the Trump administration announced it was going to cut all funding to UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, alleging its business model and fiscal practices were of an “irredeemably flawed operation”. Then in February 2019, the US Senate passed a bill allowing state governments to refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel.A month later, in March 2019, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, President Trump declared that the US unilaterally recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights.  In July 2019, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.  And finally, in November 2019, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo declared that the US government no longer considered Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories illegal under international law, preparing the ground for their inevitable annexation by Israel. 

How did Donald Trump come to lead the most pro-Israel administration in the history of the United States?  The answer is very simple.  In the USA today, white evangelicals are twice as likely as Jewish Americans to believe God gave the land of Israel for the Jewish people (72% of US evangelicals compared with 40% of US Jews). And while American Jews typically vote Democrat, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. During a recent visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu heavily implied Trump is the spiritual heir of King Cyrus. Thanking Trump for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, Netanyahu said

“We remember the proclamation of the great King Cyrus the Great — Persian King. Twenty-five hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon can come back and rebuild our temple in Jerusalem…And we remember how a few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people throughout the ages.”[5]

Pastor Paula White, Trump’s longtime spiritual adviser and now White House official, said recently “To say no to President Trump would be saying no to God,”[6] This is why, perhaps, in spite of President Trump’s strong pro-Israel policies, he can accuse 70% of American Jews of being disloyal to Israel for voting Democrat, and get away with it. Quite simply he does not need their vote.[7]

“With an evangelical base behind him, Trump has no need to offer plausible arguments before he acts. He can move the US embassy to Jerusalem, or approve the annexation of the West Bank, or attack Iran.”[8]

Morgan Strong, in an article “How Christian Zionists got their man into the White House” observes,

“The Christian Zionists managed, through the positioning of Mike Pence and fellow believers in the White House, an incredible measure of influence over the most powerful nation on earth… Pence is not alone in his efforts to convince Trump to fulfill what the Christian Zionists regard as a biblical prophecy. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, his daughter Sara Huckabee Sanders, now the White House press secretary, and Sara Palin wield great influence in the Trump administration and are ardent Christian Zionists.”[9]

Christian Zionism, in its various forms, evangelistic, political and apocalyptic, is without doubt a theology held by the majority of white evangelicals in the USA.[10]  
In December I gave a presentation in Bethlehem on the rise of the Evangelical Right in the USA and its advocacy for Israel.[11] What worries me most about the movement is their eschatology – their theology of the future. Christian Zionists hold to the belief in ‘manifest destiny’ – that God is on their side and that USA is fulfilling a divine mandate. Invariably they have a deeply pessimistic view of the future. Many are convinced that there will be an apocalyptic war of Armageddon in the imminent future. They are therefore deeply sceptical about the possibility of a lasting peace in the Middle East. This is also why they oppose the recognition of Palestine and are highly critical of both the UN and ICC. 

“The tightening of the evangelical grip on the administration has also been reflected in a growing hostility to the UN, often portrayed as a sinister and godless organisation…the United States locked into a holy war against the forces of evil who they see as embodied by Iran”.[12]

A fear and deep-seated hatred of Islam also pervades their apocalyptic theology. In May 2018, as Trump was pulling the US out of the Iran deal, Heather Timmons, writing for Quartz, observed that “Trump’s foreign policy looks a lot like Rapture Christians’ plan to welcome the apocalypse”. Pastor John Hagee is one of the most influential Christian leaders in the USA today. He heads Christians United for Israel, which has an active membership of more than 5 million, they organise over 40 pro-Israel events a month. In an interview with Bill Moyers John Hagee insisted,

“We want you to recognize that Iran is a clear and present danger to the United States of America and Israel. And… that it’s time for our country to consider a military preemptive strike against Iran if they will not yield to diplomacy.”[13]

These are some of the reasons I am deeply pessimistic regarding the prospects for peace breaking out in the Middle East in 2020.

How should people of faith respond? In 2006, I helped draft what became known as the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism[14] which was signed by four of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem and which we hope will be reissued this coming year. In it they insisted:

“We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation.

We further reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organisations with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine. This inevitably leads to unending cycles of violence that undermine the security of all peoples of the Middle East and the rest of world.

We reject the teachings of Christian Zionism that facilitate and support these policies as they advance racial exclusivity and perpetual war rather than the gospel of universal love, redemption and reconciliation taught by Jesus Christ. Rather than condemn the world to the doom of Armageddon we call upon everyone to liberate themselves from ideologies of militarism and occupation. Instead, let them pursue the healing of the nations!

The patriarchs concluded, “God demands that justice be done. No enduring peace, security or reconciliation is possible without the foundation of justice. The demands of justice will not disappear. The struggle for justice must be pursued diligently and persistently but non-violently.” 

The prophet Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

A paper delivered at a meeting of Open Discussions in association with the Gulf Cultural Club
14 January 2020

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/14/pompeo-says-killing-of-suleimani-is-part-of-bigger-strategy-to-deter-us-foes

[2] https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-netanyahu-should-not-be-allowed-to-start-a-war-with-iran-to-save-himself-1.8319960

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-war-crime-palestine-icc-hague-netaynahu-idf-investigation-a9255246.html

[4] https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/trumps-green-light-to-netanyahu-to-annex-jordan-valley-1.68288772

[5] https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/5/16796892/trump-cyrus-christian-right-bible-cbn-evangelical-propaganda

[6] https://www.facebook.com/cnnpolitics/posts/to-say-no-to-president-trump-would-be-saying-no-to-god-pastor-paula-white-trumps/3484440838264391/

[7] Tom Gjelten, ‘As U.S. Jews Cool To Israel, Evangelicals Flock There As Tourists’, 25 August 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/08/25/753720351/as-u-s-jews-cool-to-israel-evangelicals-flock-there-as-tourists?t=1574529777483

[8] Jonathan Cook, “How Evangelical Christians risk setting the Middle East on fire”, 8 July 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/how-evangelical-christians-risk-setting-middle-east-fire

[9] Morgan Strong, “How Christian Zionists got their man into the White House” 29 January 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/big-story/how-christian-zionists-got-their-man-white-house

[10] Mimi Kirk, ‘Countering Christian Zionism in the Age of Trump’ 8 August 2019, https://merip.org/2019/08/countering-christian-zionism-in-the-age-of-trump/

[11] http://www.stephensizer.com/2019/11/kairos-palestne-evangelical-movement/

[12]  Julian Borger, ‘Brought to Jesus’: the evangelical grip on the Trump administration’ 11 January 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/11/trump-administration-evangelical-influence-support

[13] Bill Moyers Journal http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/blog/2007/10/an_evangelical_christian_for_p_1.html

[14] https://stephensizer.com/2006/08/jerusalem-decaration-on-christian-zionism/