Los Angeles Times

Peace Hasn't Got a Prayer if Conflict Turns Religious

There is more at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today than Bill Clinton's legacy and Ehud Barak's reelection prospects. The current violence in the Middle East is not simply another episode in the history of the conflict but may be transforming the conflict from a nationalist one that lends itself to a resolution into an ethnic-religious conflict that does not.

The first step is to recast the conflict into a nationalist problem. In the early days following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel saw Palestinians mostly as refugees who did not constitute a people with a right to self-determination and whose return to their homes in Israel would undermine Israel's Jewish majority. Palestinians did not recognize Jewish nationalism and saw Jews as an ethnic-religious group that had no right to a state of its own. The claims were impossible to reconcile. A singular democratic egalitarian state went squarely against Jewish aspirations and Arab sentiments.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War brought Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Short of full Israeli withdrawal, there were only two other conceivable outcomes: continued inequity through forms of occupation, which was bound to lead to violence, or the unthinkable "ethnic cleansing."

The breakthrough that occurred in Oslo in 1993 was not so much the actual terms of the agreement, but that each side accepted the nationalist framing of issues by the other side. This agreement opened the door for a negotiated settlement that would preserve Israel as a state with a Jewish majority while giving the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Gaza. The negotiations were difficult, but the terms of reference were clear.

What happened at Camp David was that both sides, in dealing with the difficult issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, framed things in a way that challenged the basic nationalist understandings and provoked religious and ethnic passions.

Whereas Israel had argued for alterations to the 1967 border on the basis of security needs or the needs of its settler population, the logic of the Jerusalem argument was different. It was entirely religious. The insistence on Israeli sovereignty on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount was not based on the 1967 border or security or population needs, or even use, because few Jews visit or pray there. The basic argument was this: Israel must have sovereignty over the Temple Mount because it is the holiest site in Judaism.

Religion became the operating principle for determining political sovereignty. This led to contests with Muslims everywhere—including in Israel itself—over whose sites are more important to whom.

On the Palestinian side, the insistence that refugees return to their homes in Israel went squarely against the preservation of Israel's Jewish majority and put in doubt the basic deal of having a Jewish state next to a Palestinian state.

The tragic violence that erupted in the past few months has been accompanied by religious and ethnic discourse that threatens the basis of a negotiated agreement, opened the door for civil conflict between Arabs and Jews within Israel, and broadened the Palestinian-Israeli struggle into a wider Arab-Israeli, and even Muslim-Jewish conflict. The longer the violence goes on, the more complete the transformation and the harder the solution.

An effort must be made to rescue the nationalist framing of the conflict by setting explicit terms of reference on Jerusalem and refugees. On Jerusalem, religious issues must be separated from issues of political sovereignty. Certainly, religious issues must be addressed and religious rights must be mutually accepted. But political sovereignty cannot simply be based on religious importance. After all, the holiest Christian sites are in Jerusalem, and no one argues that they should come under the sovereign power of a Christian state. The negotiations on political sovereignty in Jerusalem must be based on needed modifications to the 1967 boundaries to accommodate essential use by either side.

Although the Western Wall was under Arab control until 1967, the reality is that it is used by Jews as an open synagogue and not used significantly by Muslims. Here, the political need for Israeli control derives not from religious importance per se, but from the fact that its regular use is critical to a significant portion of Israelis but not Palestinians. Similarly, the use of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is primarily and regularly used by Palestinians, which makes a case for it to be under Palestinian control.

The policy on refugees should be that they have a right to a permanent settlement and to compensation; the Jewish majority in Israel must be preserved. The Palestinians already agreed at Camp David to separate the principle of the right of return of refugees from the actual settlement of Palestinian claims, thus opening a window for such a formula.

The acceptance of these principles on Jerusalem and the refugees would return the discourse to the nationalist framework that lends itself to a resolution and would halt the transformation of this conflict into a religious-ethnic one. It would open the door for a lasting settlement.