Gedalyah Reback

Religion is not a threat to the peace process

I think it’s telling that despite the United States’ nuanced stance toward Israelis and Palestinians, which changes from administration to administration, it is still the arbitrator for both parties in whatever peace negotiations take place during those respective US governments. The reason no other Western country takes the lead, I think, is because European countries simply don’t attempt to understand the parties involved in any way. I believe it is related to how the majority ethnic population on the continent looks at both Jews and Muslims, and, consequently, at Israelis and Arabs.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak with former Special Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross, in 1999.
Ehud Barak with Special Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross, in 1999.

Europe, whatever the reason might be, is a theater where religious practice is not popular, or at least increasingly unpopular. While certainly not giving the issue its due attention, I’ll simplify by saying religion is considered illogical, not provable and a negative wildcard in society. The result has been repressive legislation across the continent, as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom puts it:

“During the past few years there have been increasing restrictions on, and efforts to restrict, various forms of religious expression in Western Europe, particularly religious dress and visible symbols, ritual slaughter, religious circumcision, and the construction of mosques and minarets. These, along with limits on freedom of conscience and hate speech laws, are creating a growing atmosphere of intimidation against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe. These restrictions also seriously limit social integration and educational and employment opportunities for the individuals affected.”

Those sentiments translate to attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only on issues where religion is relevant but also where it is not. As Justin Vaisse at the Brookings Institute puts it, Europeans are wary of letting religion color their foreign policy. But, attitudes in favor of government-coerced secularization ensure it inevitably does. The issues of settlements in the West Bank are not merely religiously charged, but also relevant to strategies on borders and defense. Those military considerations are ignored often enough that Europeans’ view of events here is harmfully tinted by their pre-misconceptions of religion itself.

This isn’t to say American arbiters aren’t also guilty of ignoring the relevance of religion in the conflict. They’ve repeatedly steered negotiations away from the religious ramifications of holy sites in Judaism and Islam, to the detriment of educated discussion of the sites.

The Temple Mount is only the most glaring example. An understanding of Temples, Mosques, Synagogues and shrines would be essential to splitting or merging administration of the area, yet the furthest talks have ever gone on the subject has been granting “vertical sovereignty; the Palestinians would administer literally over the site, while Israelis would presumably have archaeological rights under it.

“Vertical sovereignty” is practically useless to the Jewish people – something a negotiating process involving the religious parties would make obvious. It is also a non-sequitor in any case: the Palestinian government along with the threat of public unrest would never allow Israel full rights to archaeological administration of the site unless it were made a public issue. Consider the numerous occasions on which the Waqf that administers the site not only has endangered archaeological material, but also denied its value. The Waqf’s chief archaeologist, Yusuf Natsheh has refused to answer if he believes the Temples existed, saying “Whether I say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it would be misused. I would not like to answer.”

Archaeological excavations in Jerusalem's Old City next to the Temple Mount. (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The Temple Mount is essential to modern archaeology, but its use for Jewish and Muslim ritual is more important. (Archaeological excavations in Jerusalem’s Old City next to the Temple Mount. Photo Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

If the neutral arbiter entertains the possibility of not merely a symbolic joint administration of the site, but an actual split of sovereignty, secular observers would be impressed by the nuances of religious law inherent to Judaism and Islam, to Halachah and Sharia.

It is not impossible to bring religious Jews and religious Muslims to the table to talk about the Temple Mount, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.

Israeli riot police seen during clashes on  the Temple Mount in September. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)
Israeli riot police seen during clashes on the Temple Mount in September. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash 90)

A workable solution would be years in the making, but we all know how long these processes take. The Clinton Parameters suggested a division was possible. I’d argue they were on the right track, though their formulas were political.

If a workable solution is still conceivable 20 years after the Oslo Accords with today’s negotiations, then patience is justifiable on this specific aspect of the conflict that hasn’t been given its rightful attention. Whether because arbiters want to rush negotiations toward a premature conclusion or an intransigence toward understanding religion in general, unjustified presumptions that religion and religious law are uncompromising are pushing two parties into a pact which may not survive.

It would activate a self-fulfilling prophecy of religiously fueled war involving both Jews and Muslims who would lose out on their spiritual prosperity.

I do not trust a European state, even a collective like the European Union, to have the leadership qualified to understand what I am asserting. Ignoring religious parties to the conflict is to the detriment of a peace process’s potential and to the security of all involved. It is a mistake the United States does not have to make and that I trust they wouldn’t risk. If a religious solution to these issues were to come about, those population groups would enforce an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.
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