How Mideast Diplomacy Lost Control

Heart-wrenching scenes of a Palestinian boy shot in the arms of his father and of a public lynching of Israeli soldiers have elevated popular passions to new levels.

As full escalation becomes a real possibility in this environment, the stakes for the United States are higher than ever. And friendly governments in the region are stressed by overwhelming public passions within their own countries, intensified by new global media they cannot control.

When religion is the issue, mosques and synagogues become more powerful instruments of political mobilization than governments or political parties. Moderates go on the defensive or allow fear to overcome rationality. Serious people are increasingly drawn to the tempting belief that violence is now a solution, drawing mistaken lessons from previous episodes, as if the world has remained static.

Only weeks ago, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seemed on its way to a resolution. Although it had become a symbol of the seemingly intractable disputes in the second half of the 20th century, the conflict, in some important ways, seemed simple enough: It was largely a political fight between two national movements. Religion was not at its core.

The Zionist movement saw itself as a Jewish national movement, intent on building a Jewish nationalist state, and it was largely driven by secular ideology. The Palestinian national movement came of age in the 1960s, at a time when secular Arab nationalism swept the Middle East and was a counterweight to political Islam.

At that time, the conflict seemed intractable because the claims of both sides over the same piece of land seemed irreconcilable, not because of deep-rooted religious divisions. Even in the heyday of Arab rejection of Israel, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab nationalists framed their conflict against “Zionism,” not against Judaism.

All Arab-Israeli negotiations were based, at their core, on reconciling these nationalist claims. And the agreement that nearly happened at Camp David in July between Israel and the Palestinians, with President Clinton mediating, was based on the principle of building two states, side by side, representing the national aspirations of each people.

This task was tough enough, given the pain of half a century of bloody conflict, and given that any solution was going to represent a compromise, thus leaving many injustices unaddressed.

But there was the issue of Jerusalem. By putting the issue of the ancient city’s political sovereignty on the negotiating table, the negotiators may have not only risked failure, but also unleashed forces that transformed the conflict.

It is not a surprise that at the core of the Jerusalem issue is a deeply sacred site for both religions, known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims and as the Temple Mount to Jews. Although the negotiators had little problem agreeing on how to administer the site functionally, the issue of who should be the sovereign power over it turned out to be more than symbolic.

This question mobilized religious and secularist groups alike and provoked public passions that threatened government control.

To be sure, most Palestinians and Israelis want an end to conflict. But in the middle of a crisis, moderates—who have little to show for moderation and no agreement on the horizon to defend—go on the defensive.

If Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak had fully anticipated the outcome of Ariel Sharon’s visit, they would probably have done many things differently. Both need an agreement and cannot afford losing control. But it is now too late to look back as they confront a crisis that could turn them both into losers.

For American diplomacy to be effective in this charged environment, it must avoid blaming and accusing the parties at this time. The aim of U.S. diplomacy should be to avert a disaster for Arabs and Israelis—and for Americans.