Many delegates left the most recent General Conference surprised that one of the most prominent issues was the question of how to use our United Methodist investments to affect peace in Israel and Palestine. Legislative committees had vigorous discussions and the plenary featured an afternoon-long debate that raised awareness about conditions in the region. Much of the focus was on a narrow effort to divest from three companies doing business with Israel. What passed instead points the way beyond punitive methods that emphasize boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).
By a large margin, 614-307, the General Conference voted to accept a petition that called on the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits “to explore serious peacemaking strategies in Israel and Palestine including encouraging positive economic and financial investments in Palestine.” By a similar margin the delegates rejected the mandatory divestment language in a minority report. The result is a strong statement that opens the door to new forms of engagement including positive investment, building up the structures that will allow for a future Palestinian state.
Advocates of BDS are disappointed that we did not take an action that they see as clearly consistent with previous statements on the baleful effect of the Israeli occupation. During the debate advocates cast the decision as a choice between action and inaction. But positive investment is not only an active step, it also places the United Methodist Church in the most appropriate stance for peacemaking – not choosing sides in a complex situation, but supporting the growth of an environment in which trust can be built between two secure and stable parties who can then come to the table for fruitful negotiations.
Other religious leaders are looking beyond unproductive BDS debates. On March 25, 2012, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, spoke in favor of positive investment saying, “It’s not going to be helpful to endorse divestment or boycotts of Israel. It will only end in punishing Palestinians economically.” In an April 26, 2012 Christian Century article, Thomas A. Prinz and John-Karl N. Stone note, “While investment does not take the place of a political solution, it can improve the lives of Palestinians even under the current situation, in which the per capita GDP is $1,500. And Palestinians who are empowered financially are in a better position for political empowerment.”
Now that the General Conference decision is past, perhaps people of good faith on both sides of the debate can come together to offer a common witness. Both sides agree that the occupation must end. It is deforming both Israeli and Palestinian societies. It is constricting growth and causing untold suffering for many people. To end the suffering and to end the occupation requires two parties willing to trust each other ‘enough’ to sit down and take the risks that are necessary for peace. As Christians we have a calling to create an environment that allows that trust to build.
Positive investment by itself will not bring the parties to agree at the negotiating table. But it will be a very strong step forward towards a final status agreement and would help create the institutions and infrastructure that would allow Palestine to be a viable state and partner for peace after such an agreement.
Boycott, divestments, and sanctions are negative instruments designed to create enough pain and pressure on one party, the Israelis, so that they will take steps unilaterally to end the occupation. But Israel cannot end the occupation by itself. Israel needs a partner with whom it can come to agreement on issues like recognized borders, the right of return, and many other matters that are of crucial importance to the existence of the Israeli state and the future of a Palestinian state.
Our stance should be one that says to both Israelis and Palestinians, “We understand your historic and legitimate claims to the same land. We hear and recognize the pain that emerges from your experiences in this conflict. But we are not going to participate in the continuing demonization of one side over another or the continuation of policies that bring about fear and isolation for one side over the other. What we will do is to stand with both of you in creating the environment that allows for ‘enough’ trust to be built and for ‘enough’ risk-taking to happen so that a new day can come. We hold a vision of a day when an independent and secure Palestine can stand alongside an independent and secure Israel.”
After BDS, there is a landscape where people of peace can come together – not neglecting justice, but working for its realization through honest engagement and true solidarity with all the people of the land.