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Originally published Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

A united appeal for peace in the Middle East

Can the moral, moderate voices among American Jews, Christians and Muslims unite with enough strength to persuade our government to engage actively in pursuing peace between Israelis...

Special to The Times

Can the moral, moderate voices among American Jews, Christians and Muslims unite with enough strength to persuade our government to engage actively in pursuing peace between Israelis and Palestinians? We believe they can. We believe it is time to take center stage away from the extremists and cynics, who warp our vision about the opportunity for co-existence and who obscure the reality that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians desperately want an end to violence and would accept a negotiated two-state peace agreement.

Although much has been written recently about the pivotal role of religion in politics, it is still very unusual for American Jews, Christians and Muslims to work together for peace in the Middle East. We have different backgrounds, histories and experiences, and we are connected in different ways to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we are united in our belief that peace in the Middle East is possible and that our government must play the critical role in facilitating negotiations and strengthening the moderates on both sides, in order for the peace process to succeed.

We are three Seattle area persons of faith: a Muslim, originally from the Palestinian city of Hebron in the Holy Land, with Palestinian relatives and friends who have had innocent family members killed in attacks by Israelis and believe Israelis want them to disappear; a Lutheran bishop who, though long a supporter of Israel, regularly hears pleas for help from his Palestinian Lutheran bishop colleague living under occupation in the West Bank; and a rabbi, committed to the survival of Israel who knows Jews who have lost family members in Palestinian suicide bombings and still fear that Palestinians want Israel to disappear.

We are members of three different communities of faith, but we are committed to working together for peace.

We are joining Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in Seattle and in more than a dozen cities across the nation this week who are making a public commitment to educate our congregations and speak to our elected officials about the necessity of direct U.S. engagement in the peace process. We are supporting the national leaders of our religious communities who have issued a united appeal to President Bush to make Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace an urgent, top priority of his second term.

As persons who have precious bonds with people on different sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have concluded that it is now time to put aside our differences and to demonstrate how both our religious teachings and the practical requirements for peace led us to fundamental agreement. We join Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in the Middle East, many of whom we know personally, who absolutely condemn the killing of innocents and call for an end to all acts of violence.

And we agree that what each side needs most — real, lasting security for Israelis and a viable independent and secure state for Palestinians — cannot be achieved by violence but only by negotiations.

We are inspired by the examples of many Israelis and Palestinians who, despite the violence and deep mistrust, are working together for peace, including 500 families from both sides who have had family members killed in the conflict. And we know that there are principles and ideas from earlier official negotiations and from several, unofficial model peace agreements that point the way toward possible compromise solutions to even the toughest issues, including borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

We are increasingly convinced that completing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than invading Iraq, should have been the priority for U.S. policy in the Middle East. But even now, no matter what happens in Iraq, we believe renewed U.S. leadership for Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace is essential and that resolving this conflict will dramatically reduce support for extremism worldwide and will enhance prospects for democratic reform and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in the region.

Specifically, we believe President Bush should appoint a special presidential envoy to go to the region with a full-time commitment to pursue negotiations. Former Secretary of State James Baker and former Sens. John Danforth and George Mitchell have been mentioned publicly as possibilities and seem to us to be good candidates.

Insisting that all violence stop before restarting negotiations gives a veto to extremists. Instead, just as the road map to peace mandates, a timetable should be negotiated for specific simultaneous steps by the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and an effective, public monitoring system put in place to assure implementation by both sides. There needs to be a substantial increase in (strictly monitored) aid to the Palestinian Authority to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, rebuild infrastructure and provide desperately needed jobs.

The conflict has gone on for years, but we believe this could be a new day. Now, with the Palestinian elections to choose new national leadership and Israel's plan for withdrawal from Gaza, our government must not sit on the sidelines. Israelis and Palestinians need America's help.

In Seattle, we are forming a Jewish, Christian, Muslim interreligious initiative, committed to appealing to our congregations and communities and reaching out to others of good will to press the administration and members of Congress for determined, fair and firm U.S. leadership in pursuit of peace. In this way we believe the power of moderate religious voices can push extremism to the margin, give hope to people in the region and foster the use of American power for building the road to peace in the Middle East.

Hisham Farajallah is president of the Islamic Center of Washington. The Rev. William Chris Boerger is bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Rabbi James L. Mirel is president of the Washington Coalition of Rabbis.

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