As direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are launched this week, it will be critical that the talks address the religious dimension of the conflict. This has been given only scant attention thus far, despite the fact that it has, and will continue to have, a tremendous impact on the ultimate outcome of the negotiations. Religious radicals -- both Jewish and Muslim -- seek to transform the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from a territorial and national conflict to a religious one, fueled by the conviction that God bequeathed the land exclusively to one faith. It is a view that prevents rational discourse between the sides and leads to the conclusion that agreeing to a two-state solution to the conflict would be tantamount to defying God's will. However, it is time that leaders on both sides -- with the assistance of the United States -- begin to challenge those who purport to seek God's will to consider that Jews and Muslims may be intended to share the land after all.
Religious radicals on both sides have been guilty of fueling the conflict through violence and human rights violations perpetrated in the name of God. Guided by a blind belief that they are performing God's will, they do not pause to question: "Would an all-loving and merciful God really want us to continue killing each other and contaminate the land that is holy to us both?" Even more, those who believe that they have an exclusive right to the land should ask, "If God wished to ordain the land in perpetuity to either the Israelis or the Palestinians, why then did God thrust them together in this same land?" After many years of bloodshed and destruction, one would think that the so-called believers would conclude that it is not a fluke that the great monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- happen to be anchored in the same land. It may very well be that they are intended to live alongside each other in peace, not to fight each other in perpetual self-destructive war and paradoxically do so in the name of God.
It would not be the first time that Jews and Muslims have lived side-by-side in peace. Jewish scholarship and culture reached a zenith under Islamic rule. It was the Islamic world that served as a refuge for those Jews who were persecuted and expelled from Christian-dominated Europe, notably following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Although a subordinated minority subjected to some forms of discrimination and confinements, Jews were free to practice and develop their religious practice under Islamic rule. In fact, in the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim rule, Jews were able to make great advances in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry and philology, in an era often referred to as the "Golden Age" of Jewish culture.
Instead of perpetuating conflict driven by religious fervor, Jews and Muslims should use their shared belief and affinity for the Holy Land as a source of commonality to create a new "Golden Age" in Jewish-Muslim relations. Rather than a source of tension, the Holy sites in the region sacred to both peoples -- such as the Cave of Machpelah (Me'arat Hamachpelah in Hebrew, Al-Haram al-Ibrahim in Arabic): burial place of Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; and Jacob and Leah -- should be viewed as an indication of the need to safeguard the rights of both Jews and Muslims in the land they both cherish. Such sites -- and the historic and psychological implications of their existence -- cannot be subject to change short of catastrophic developments. Both sides must come to accept this simple, indisputable and unchallengeable fact: The "other" believes the land to be sacred and holy as well.
Unfortunately, religious extremists on both sides have shown no willingness to espouse such a view through three generations of bloodshed and wars. Instead, they distort interpretations of their respective holy texts in order to legitimize and foster their warped theological and political beliefs. While some argue that their interpretations of religious texts demand that there be no reconciliation between Jews and Muslims (and by extension Israelis and Palestinians), others claim that the pain and suffering caused by the years of bloodshed was meant to test their tenacity and will, and has made such a rapprochement impossible. But if the Jewish state found a way to reconcile with Germany following the Holocaust, it must -- and can -- find a way to reconcile with Muslims -- and Palestinians -- today. The same, of course, applies to Palestinian extremists such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Violently resisting Israel in the name of God has proven to be futile and will continue to be self- consuming and destructive if pursued further. They, as any true believer -- whether Jewish or Muslim -- must recognize that both faiths, Islam and Judaism, identify Abraham -- or Ibrahim -- as their shared patriarch. Just as it was God's will that these two peoples share an ancestry, both peoples must recognize that it too is God's will that they share a common future alongside one another in peace. Indeed, if the inhabitants of the land live in peace, harmony and brotherhood, rather than acrimony and violence, the land can be as the Old Testament characterized it as the land of "milk and honey," rather than conflict and bloodshed that will consume its inhabitants.
The outrageous words expressed earlier this week by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Israeli political party, Shas, wishing that "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world," provides evidence that the leaders of faith are too often part of the problem, rather than part of the solution in the Middle East. Rabbi Ovadia's radical rhetoric and intolerance blinds him to the reality that, should Abu Mazen pass, he would be replaced by thousands who share his national aspiration for statehood and are prepared to make the same demands and sacrifices to achieve it. The choice is therefore quite simple for those -- like Rabbi Ovadia -- whose theology and political ideology are intertwined: prosperity or destruction? In this regard, the reality today is that coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is not one of many choices, but the only choice and a solution to their religious conflict must be an integral part of that choice. To that single and indisputable end, as the Israelis and Palestinians begin to resolve their political and territorial differences, the Obama administration should insist that the two sides appoint a joint Israeli-and-Palestinian committee composed of distinguished religious scholars to immediately engage in an interfaith dialogue to begin addressing the theological aspects of the conflict. There may be no easy solution, but a solution must be found regarding such sensitive issues as managing the various holy sites of an agreement on the future of East Jerusalem.
Continuing the struggle against the reality that is their shared past and future should be viewed as nothing less than a defiance of God's intentions. As such, Muslims and Jews of faith should accept that they are destined -- or doomed -- to coexist. In this sense, God has already spoken.