By ALON BEN-MEIR
THE ARAB-ISRAELI conflict is typically viewed as a political and territorial conflict, yet it is the religious component that fuels it. The Israeli narrative is based on the biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu implored Congress in his May 24 address, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond, between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.”
For many Israelis it is extremely painful to relinquish control of the West Bank, known as the ancient biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and it is inconceivable to surrender the Western Wall and see Jerusalem under anyone else’s jurisdiction. Similarly, no Arab leader would compromise on Jerusalem because of the religious convictions tied to the third-holiest shrines of Islam in Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Haram al-Sharif. Moreover, many Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to the “furthest mosque,” which literally means Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, before he ascended to heaven. Although Al-Aqsa mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Sura 17:1 says that Muhammad visited the site where Masjid Al-Aqsa was to be built. This belief is not limited to the Palestinians but shared by all Muslims, which further complicates any solution to the future of Jerusalem.
ALTHOUGH MANY realize that coexistence is inevitable, there are still strong voices among Israelis and Palestinians who don’t accept it. There are Israelis who deny that the Palestinians are a nation with national aspirations, believing that they can be given independence in municipalities, but remain perpetually under Israel’s jurisdiction. Similarly, there are Palestinians who deny that Israelis constitute a nation, let alone one that settles in the land they seek for their own. Too often leaders on each side have exploited these denials for their own political and ideological gains. For example, for the Israeli side, this has meant a denial of the dilemma of Palestinian refugees; on the Palestinian side, a denial of Israel’s genuine security concerns. This blind refusal of reality by influential voices on both sides strengthens those on the fringes seeking to delay a solution. The quintessential example of the denial of the need to coexist is the development of unilateral policies that signal an attempt to shape a national future as if it were possible to do so independent of the other side.
BY INSISTING on far-fetched formulas, each side creates a state of self-entrapment, locked into a posture without a face-saving way out. Israelis and Palestinians are addicted to missing opportunities and adopting harmful positions. Israelis insist that Palestinians have no jurisdiction over any part of Jerusalem, and that Palestinian leaders recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians perpetuate the fantasy that refugees will one day return to Israel, destroying Israel’s Jewish character. These positions only serve to impede any serious dialogue.
Overcoming these foundational obstacles to a twostate agreement requires more than negotiations between political leaders. Recently the idea of a conference hosted in France to spark Israeli-Palestinian talks was shot down. The Europeans may, however, be particularly suited to host conferences that bring together the religious leaders, historians and NGOs that engage in talks, without outside political pressure. Airing these issues and reaching a better understanding could impact public opinion and provide leadership with the necessary public support and political cover to accommodate each other.
For this reason any negotiations about the future of the city of Jerusalem, for example, requires in-depth dialogue between respected and independent Jewish and Muslim religious scholars. In a different setting, notable historians can meet to advance understanding among both peoples of the traumatic history of each side and how the narratives have been shaped in the past and might be shaped in the future to advance coexistence. Other conferences could deal with the lack of trust, the continuing self-entrapment and the denial of the realities on the ground. Finally, non-governmental organizations can help disseminate the findings, without the political baggage borne by the leadership. The European community would be ideal to host such conferences of dialogue because they don’t share the same religious biases of countries like the United States or Turkey.
Doing so would also acknowledge the helpful role that Europe and the broader international community can play in resolving the conflict. Only with a broader and deeper dialogue, and shared pursuit of understanding the conflict, can its roots be addressed, and ended on the political, psychological, historical and religious levels.
The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
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