Piety and Politics in the Middle East

A Bad Pair

From the very beginning, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more than just a fight for land. Religion plays a large role, for both the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Pious fanatics from both sides put a strain on negotiations. Kersten Knipp reports

View of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (photo: picture-alliance/ZP)
The Temple Mount is a religious site in the Old City of Jerusalem. Due to its importance for Judaism and Islam it is one of the most contested religious sites in the world

​​ "We will now take control over the land of our fathers. After thousands of years, we finally have the privilege of experiencing the promises of the Old Testament being fulfilled. And that is why the construction of settlements must continue. A freeze on building contradicts our religious duty." These are the kind of comments one hears from Jewish, mostly Orthodox settlers in the occupied territories, and which find resonance in the media, such as in articles in the Jerusalem Post.

Many Orthodox Jews view Israel and Israelis in a religious light. Their standpoint is based on Holy Scriptures. If this were only a personal matter, then there would be no reason for objections. These views, however, become problematic when they also serve as the justification for political demands.

Absolute positions

According to the New York based historian Rakefet Zalashik, such a standpoint makes peace negotiations extremely difficult. When religion combines with politics, both exert a much greater influence, she says. There is less of a tendency to find political and diplomatic compromises and solutions. The conflict then hinges on absolute positions, which allow for no compromises. This makes conditions for negotiations very complicated.

The Palestinian side has also exhibited a devout hardening of positions. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, similarly links political with religious demands. A clear differentiation of motives is now hardly possible.

Hanan Ashrawi (photo: AP)
"And no religion, too…" Hanan Ashravi feels that religious and political arguments ought to be clearly separated from one another

​​ According to Hanan Ashrawi, the former Minister of Education of the Palestinian National Authority, says that Hamas adheres to a very strict religious domestic policy. The party has legitimization through elections, explains Ashrawi, who now serves as the chair of the Miftah Initiative to promote Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.

What is overlooked, however, is that the Palestinian people express little support for censorship, thought control, compulsion, or the banning of books.

Equally, the majority is against the closing of Internet cafés on religious grounds. Despite this, Hamas continues to intimidate the population, forbids people to gather, and prevents demonstrations. This easily leads to the impression in the outside world that the residents of the Gaza Strip all share the same religiously biased worldview.

Disappointed hopes

Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that the religious hardening is also an expression of concrete frustrations. The hopes that both sides invested in the peace process that began a decade and a half ago and the Oslo Accords have been totally dashed. And there is little indication that any fundamental agreement will be reached now.

Mahmud Abbas (photo: dpa)
"There is no peace of the weak": The feeble position of Mahmud Abbas is one reason for a decreased likeliness of a durable peace settlement

​​ These disappointments, says Rakefet Zalashik, explain why the conflict exhibits strong religious components. Prime Minister Netanyahu, clearly, is not negotiating with the Americans on the basis of religion. His interest is political. But even when he believes that some of these religious arguments are correct, the core problem is something else, namely, that many Israelis no longer believe in the peace process.

Since the failure of the Oslo Accords, Hamas coming to power in the Gaza Strip, and the continuously weakening position of Mahmud Abbas, a vast number of Israelis hardly await a peace agreement. Even those who don't share the right-wing viewpoint have been disappointed by the peace process. They are now sceptical about the possibility of two states living side-by-side. The atmosphere has radically changed since the 1990s, when the peace process began.

The destructive role of religion

What are the chances of success for the recently renewed negotiations? Hanan Ashrawi feels that their chances would markedly increase if religious and political arguments could be clearly separated from one another. The essence of the conflict is political in nature and the blending in of religious concerns will do anything but resolve the problem.

Whoever attempts to describe the conflict in religious terms is only hindering the solution. Religion always has a destructive effect whenever it is misused for political purposes. This holds true for all faiths – the Christian League in the USA, fundamentalist movements in the Arab and Islamic world, and also for ultra-Orthodox settlers, who justify their political positions with the Old Testament.

No matter how contrary the positions between the Israelis and the Palestinians may be, the moderates on both sides are united in the view that the conflict has to be limited to political and legal issues. Religious arguments have no place at the negotiation table. If the representatives of both sides could agree to this and refrain from bringing religion into the negotiations, then the prospects of reaching a solution would no longer be so faint.

Kersten Knipp

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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