A coalition of 14 Protestant and Catholic agencies, declaring that the recent violence on the West Bank points up the need for an "end to the status quo," wants the United States to take the lead in pressing for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Arab leaders.
"The uprisings by Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel proper send a clear message which our government should not ignore: (1) the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end, and (2) the peace process must begin," said the Washington-based coalition, Churches for Middle East.
Included in the coalition are the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches and the National Council of Churches, made up of 31 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox bodies. Representatives of several of the groups met privately here on Jan. 11 with Israeli Embassy officials to discuss their concerns.
The churches, many of which do missionary work in the Middle East, said the uprising has marked the most widespread protests by Palestinians since Israel began occupying the West Bank in 1967. They said the rioting is "more than just another cycle of violence" and underscores the lack of political avenues open to the Palestinians.
"The December uprising had its roots inside the occupied territories. It was not, as some would suggest, orchestrated by PLO leadership from outside the territories," said the statement, submitted to the House Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.
Asked to respond to the church appeal, B'nai B'rith International leader Seymour D. Reich said he agrees with the call for an end to the West Bank status quo but that the statement seemed to cast too much of the blame on Israel. Jewish and mainline Christian leaders in the United States have frequently been at odds over the Palestinian issue.
Citing research compiled by the West Bank Data Project, directed by former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, the religious coalition said the West Bank clashes are only the latest sign of a growing civil war within Israel. "This internal war has been growing while the conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab states and the PLO has been receding," it said.
The churches called for Middle East peace negotiations involving "all interested parties," including Israel, Arab nations, the Soviet Union and "the leadership designated by the Palestinian people." The latter was an allusion to the PLO, with which Israel has refused to negotiate until the PLO recognizes Israel's right to exist.
The churches charged that the Reagan administration has failed to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a high priority. "The prospect for launching an effective peace process requires a major, sustained U.S. initiative or at least vigorous support for a viable initiative from other quarters," the coalition said.
It called on Congress and the administration to "take concrete steps to end the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse."
Others in the church coalition include the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, Mennonite Central Committee, Church of the Brethren, American Friends Service Committee and Unitarian Universalist Association.