Coalition of Church Groups Calls for Pressure on Israel

A coalition of major Protestant and Catholic groups has called on the Clinton administration to press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold to the commitments Israel has made in the peace process.

“There is concern in the church community that the Netanyahu government continues on the road to peace that both [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres so well established,” said Terence Miller, chairman of Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 14 groups that together represent some 45 million Christians.

Its member groups include: the National Council of Churches, which itself is an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches; United Methodist Church; United Church of Christ; Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches in the USA; and the Roman Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The umbrella group also includes the “peace churches,” which are the Mennonite, Quaker and Church of the Brethren denominations.

The Clinton administration “must make clear that it opposes the building of new settlements and the expansion of existing settlements geographically or by adding population, including in the occupied areas in and near Jerusalem,” the group said in a statement released in advance of this week’s visit to Washington by Netanyahu, his first since being elected to head the Israeli government.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, criticized the move by the church coalition.

The coalition is made up of “people who basically take an anti-Israel position and historically have had a double standard for Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

“Unless Israel does exactly what they want they come down hard on the country. You don’t find them making similar demands on the Palestinian Authority or Syria.”

The church coalition first expressed its concerns about the new Israeli government last month in two letters addressed to President Clinton.

In a June 11 letter, the organization’s executive committee recalled how the Bush administration used U.S. loan guarantees as leverage to curtail Israeli settlement activity in the territories.

“In recognition of the considerable financial aid provided to Israel and the restrictions placed by the Bush administration on loan guarantees, Americans are particularly alert and sensitive about the financing of Israel’s settlement program,” the letter said.

The umbrella group had urged President Bush to withhold the $10 billion in loan guarantees until Israel agreed to stop all construction of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Churches for Middle East Peace has registered strong opposition to Israeli policies on other matters as well.

The organization has protested to the American government about Israel’s closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, imposed after the first of a series of suicide bombings in February and March.

While the group does not characterize itself as pro-Palestinian, most of its members do have close relationships with Palestinian and Lebanese Christian churches connected to the various Catholic and Protestant denominations, Miller said.

“We’re in service to the local people we’re sent to serve. That’s who we’re in partnership with,” he said.

Rudin said the group’s call for U.S. pressure on Israel so soon after Israel’s elections was discouraging.

“I would hope they would be critiqued by other Christians who have taken a different view since Israel and the Palestinians began negotiating directly in 1993,” he said.

But Rudin cautioned that the group’s voice “could be ominous if the going gets tough between Israel and the United States.”

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