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Religious Leaders Seek Active Role in Mideast Peace Process


The recent collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has presented an important opportunity for peace elsewhere in the Middle East, at least according to Israel's Prime Minister. Ariel Sharon recently told members of his Likud party that he's willing to sit down with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, to negotiate a peace settlement. But at a recent forum hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, a non-partisan research foundation created by Congress nearly 20-years-ago, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders warned that no peace plan will succeed if secular politicians like Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas are the only leaders at the table. Religious leaders say they need to be allowed to play an active role in the negotiations, if a lasting peace is ever to be established in the region.

Few people, if anyone, would deny that religious beliefs have been a powerful source of conflict in the Middle East and around the world. But David Smock, director of the Religion and Peacebuilding Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says that doesn't mean discord is the only thing religion is capable of generating. "There are other narratives being lived out in Israel and Palestine. Religious leaders on both sides are taking strong and courageous initiatives to promote peace and reconciliation, based upon the ethical principles of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," he says.

When Ariel Sharon sits down with Mahmoud Abbas, as he says he's willing to do, one of the peace plans the two men will consider is a so-called "road map" to Palestinian statehood put together by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. It's known as the "Quartet Plan", and it suggests that a Palestinian state could be created as early as 2005.

In a formal statement about the plan, quartet officials insisted that it "will not succeed unless it addresses [the] political, economic, humanitarian, and institutional dimensions" of the conflict. But David Smock says policymakers need to understand that the religious dimensions must also be addressed. "There are those who make a persuasive argument that one reason the Oslo/Camp David Process failed was that religious leaders were excluded from the process. Religious issues were and continue to be at stake, and religious leaders may have been able to build a more popular base of support for political accommodation," he says.

In 1994, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, in part because of a peace agreement known as the Oslo Declaration of Principles. But one year later, Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish radical opposed to peace concessions, and by 2000, animosities had escalated to such a point that Palestinian authorities declared a "second intifada" had begun.

Former Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, Michael Melchior, says this intifada is different from the first one in 1987, because it's overtly religious. "The process has turned into a religious conflict, because those who do not want a solution have succeeded in turning it into a religious conflict," he says. "And the problem is that those who are dealing with the Middle East process are people who do not live in that dimension. And therefore, they believe that we should ignore the religious dimension, and if we ignore it sufficiently, it will just go away."

Rabbi Melchior says he understands why politicians are hesitant to involve religious leaders in the peace talks. But he also says those leaders are the ones most capable of convincing the Israeli and Palestinian people to embrace a peace plan, and therefore they must be included in the process.

But religious leaders interested in peace also need to make more of an effort to reach out to everyday Israelis and Palestinians, according to Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a professor at the American University in Washington, DC, who has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "To be honest with you, most of the religious peacemakers have been enclosed in their own enclaves. What could make this interfaith dialogue effective in the Israeli-Palestinian context is to remove it from the elite, to bring it to the grassroots, the people on the ground. Because when Hamas or when Kahana or when the Religious Right in Israel mobilize their supporters, mostly they rely on the masses," he says.

And for that reason, Professor Abu-Nimer says forums such as the one recently hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace are important, but far from sufficient. Because while these forums highlight necessary questions and propose necessary solutions, the people who attend them are, by and large, already convinced that religious principles offer the best opportunity for peace in the Middle East.