National leaders of 21 Christian churches and church-related agencies on Monday signed a letter encouraging Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her active engagement in peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Tuesday Rice, on her fourth visit to Israel this year, spent all day and all night brokering an agreement on security controls at a Gaza border crossing, heightening the Bush administration’s involvement in leading negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have seen little progress since Israel withdrew from Gaza this summer.

Rice canceled plans to travel to South Korea on Monday night, sending the message that she planned to pressure the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to reach an agreement to move people and goods in and out of Gaza.

While the two sides came close to agreeing on allowing immigration into Gaza across the Egyptian border at Rafah, an impasse came over who should monitor passage of potential extremists in and out of Gaza.

Fearing that terrorists with arms or money for suicide bombers could cross from Egypt into Gaza and then sneak into Israel, the Israelis demanded the right to place security cameras at Rafah feeding into Israeli computer banks.

The Palestinians, desiring to gain control of one border crossing so Palestinians from Gaza could enter and leave the territory without passing through Israeli security, rejected such monitoring as offensive.

In unprecedented personal involvement, Rice intervened in the talks to reach a compromise having the European Union control the cameras, so there would be no “official” Israeli presence while taking seriously Israel’s security concerns.

Before now, the White House has avoided direct involvement in the peace process, limiting its diplomacy to speeches and documents like President Bush’s “road map” for peace, which outlines several steps for establishing a Palestinian state but so far is largely unimplemented.

According to the New York Times, the more direct–and riskier–strategy stems from fear that frustration over the impasse might hinder re-election chances for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in January and from pressure from inside the State Department, where the top U.S. envoy to Israel reportedly has privately blamed lack of U.S. involvement for slow progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Before the agreement, church leaders associated with the coalition Churches for Middle East Peace signed a letter to Rice, also sent to all members of Congress, encouraging U.S. leadership to work “toward a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, with Jerusalem as their shared capital.”

“We believe that you and the President, working cooperatively with the Quartet, have the power to bring both sides to the negotiating table,” the letter said. “The security of Israelis and Palestinians depends on this happening as does our own.”

The 21 leaders signing the letter included Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance is one of 21 member bodies of Churches for Middle East Peace, a Washington-based organization that through lobbying in Washington and educational and advocacy efforts in local church seeks to provide an alternative to the religious right’s “Christian Zionist” position of uncritical support for Israel.

The group advocates both a secure Israel recognized by the Arab world and a viable Palestinian state with contiguous borders including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, with an undivided Jerusalem as a shared capital for both states.

We continue to believe that the president’s vision of a viable, democratic state of Palestine living next to a secure Israel can be fulfilled, and we commend the administration’s recognition that Jerusalem is one of the final status issues that should not be prejudged,” the letter said in part.

“We urge you to ensure that Palestinians in East Jerusalem are able to participate fully in Palestinian legislative elections in January,” it continued. “The compliance of Israel to the president’s insistence that building cease in the E1 area [near East Jerusalem] was a good sign. We are grateful that the administration has continued to demand that settlement activity cease, and disappointed that Israel has ignored that request and other requirements of the Road Map.”

Another signer, National Council of Churches General Secretary Bob Edgar, on Wednesday commended Rice for her persistence in brokering a settlement on the border crossing dispute. Quoting from the letter, “Hope is difficult to sustain as Israel continues to block movement of Palestinian people and goods,” Edgar said in a statement that he was newly encouraged by Rice’s comment that “this agreement is intended to give the Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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