I, along with nearly two dozen of my U.S. congressional colleagues, have just concluded a 10-day fact finding trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. We had formal meetings with many leaders, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as informal talks with average Israelis and Palestinians.
What I thought I knew when I came here was confirmed by the boots on the ground. The central issue, everyone's concern, is the possible United Nation's vote in September on an independent State of Palestine.
Tensions on both sides are high and growing stronger. Both sides are preparing for a confrontation almost inevitably it seems a violent confrontation that will involve at a minimum Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States -- but likely other nations as well.
It is anticipated that the Palestinians will seek recognition as a State from the United Nations - which Israel currently opposes. The United States will almost certainly use its veto in the UN Security Council, which will insure that the Palestinian statehood effort will fail.
What will be the response?
Marwan Barghouti, even though jailed since 2002, is an influential Fattah Palestinian leader who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for acts committed in the Second Intifida, has called "on our people in the homeland and in the diaspora to go out in a peaceful, million-man march during the week of voting in the United Nations in September." He told an Egyptian news service that a U.S. veto would be a "historic, deadly mistake" and that there would be strong protests throughout the Arab and Muslim world and beyond. Does a convicted terrorist who has used violence in the past, and has not ruled out its use in the future, really have the moral authority and credibility to advocate a non-violent march and be believable?
Palestinian leaders deny it, but following the UN vote in September, according to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister, the Palestinian Authority is preparing for unprecedented "bloodshed on a scale we haven't yet seen." He added, "When you prepare a demonstration in which tens of thousands will storm the Kalandia checkpoint, you can just imagine what would happen if 30 or 40 thousand people try to forcefully enter Israel. How are soldiers and officers supposed to react?"
However, the real questions are these: If Palestinians do engage in a non-violent active resistance campaign to protest their occupation, is the Israeli Government really prepared to handle it? What if the Palestinians intend and plan non-violent demonstrations, but either Israeli or Palestinian provocateurs sabotage them? That happened to Dr. King in Memphis. Or, with the whole world watching, will American weapons and supplies be used to kill and maim non-violent Palestinian protestors? And what will be the consequence of that? The Arab Spring has mainly been about replacing their national leaders -- not the Palestinian cause. But if the whole world is filled with videos and photos of non-violent Palestinian protestors being plundered by the Israeli military, using equipment and weapons supplied by the U.S., will the Arab Spring's attention then shift to the Palestinian cause of statehood? And what are the political and economic consequences of that for the U.S. and the world with its current economic problems?
Shimon Peres is still holding out some hope "that both sides return to the negotiation table before September." He said, "Both the Palestinians and the Israelis understand that the alternative to peace is a succession of unfortunate mistakes."
So is there an alternative to this potential violent future?
I stand in the non-violent active resistance tradition of Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - as does my father the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson - and I believe there is a non-violent and just path to Palestinian statehood that is also in the security interests of Israelis.
In our meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and remembering the risk for peace that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin took, that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat took - I asked him what he was willing to risk for peace. He said it would make his security very uncomfortable, but that he was willing to go to Ramallah to talk with President Mahmoud Abbas. My father challenged a "no talk" policy in the U.S. in the late 1970s because, he argued, if you talk, you can act, and if you act, you can change things. Our delegation took that message to leaders of the Palestinian Authority, but not all of them agreed that the symbolic gesture of Benjamin Netanyahu crossing over into their territory to meet with Palestinian leadership in Ramallah would have any profound effect. I think such an initiative could be a non-violent step toward peace.
I also know that if the Palestinians abandoned violence, launched a non-violent active resistance movement and established a demonstrated history of non-violent struggle against their occupation it would inevitability change the view of the Palestinian struggle in the court of world opinion, strengthen the cause of Palestinian statehood and speed up the day of its realization - whatever the outcome of the UN vote this September.
In Washington, DC, on August 28, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be unveiled on the 48th anniversary of his "I Have A Dream" speech. When he gave that speech, he was factoring in 246 years of slavery and another 98 years of legal segregation and on-going discrimination. Most thought he was confronted with two limited "change" options: (1) the bloody and ineffective choice of violence; or (2) the weak and ineffective choice of gradualism and non-confrontation. He chose a third path -- a life of non-violent active resistance and a willingness to endure unearned suffering.
He chose the non-violent path to peace and greater justice so future generations could prosper and progress, a path that made Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and President Barack Obama possible in 1995 and 2008 respectively. The violent path would have made both of our elections impossible in our time and created a "memory" that would have perpetuated a cycle of violence and revenge for past incidents that would have lasted into the foreseeable future.
One of the many lessons taught by Dr. King in his philosophy of non-violence was that our means and ends should remain as close together as possible. Clearly, the historical and on-going bad experiences of African Americans in the U.S., and the past experiences and continuing occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, are both wrong, but the path of hate, terrorism, rockets, missiles and even throwing rocks in hatred is not the path to a lasting peace or greater justice, or the path to statehood in the relatively near future.
Recognizing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, renouncing violence and pursuing a path of non-violent active resistance will gain Palestinians world-wide support and - sooner rather than later - a positive vote for statehood at the UN.
And it would be a goal that Palestinians deserve and will have earned in a manner that allows peace, justice and security between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to be more likely to occur, and future reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians easier to achieve. Nonviolence is a way of life that will guarantee peaceful coexistence in the future and the eventual goal of a demilitarized region.