09/02/2010 12:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Middle East Peace Talks: Getting Religion Right

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already super-saturated with religion. If only the land was a little less holy, many feel, perhaps the conflict wouldn't be so intractable. So it might seem strange to argue that the direct peace talks need to marry religious sensibilities with political realities, rather than divorce them.

It's easy to get this wrong. In a recent commentary, James Carroll
claims that the conflict is rooted in Christianity's historical political/theological attacks on both Judaism and Islam.

As if a binary religious conflict wasn't enough, in his eyes it's now a triple tango - which rather seems to compound the difficulties of resolution. Charles Glass' cogent response - while providing an important political corrective - goes too far in the other direction. His notion that it's all about having a better life and preventing the uprooting of olive trees is right. There can be no trivialization or distraction from the fact that people's lives and property are being uprooted, terrorized and sometimes destroyed in this conflict (on both sides). But it's not only that.

There is a religious conflict here. The land is not about to get less holy. The wish for people to stop being "irrational" and killing or usurping in the name of god is naïve. The fact that many Israelis hardly visit Jerusalem, or that the majority (roughly 70%) of Israeli Jews are not orthodox, will never detract from the symbolic importance of Jerusalem in their hearts and souls. Palestinians may need olive trees and more likely investment in a high-tech industry. But they also need Haram al-Sharif.

After decades and millennia of religious, national and ethnic conflicts, their occurrence should not be a surprise. What is surprising is that policy circles still have few systematic guidance for accepting and working with the religio-symbolic factors in this reality. The tendency is either to blame religion in a facile way as the root of conflict; or else to write it off as elite manipulation of masses for cynical purposes.

Both fail to account for the mass of people who cherish their religious and spiritual beliefs, but are neither fanatics nor warmongers. The crazies get all the attention, while such people are left out of the equation.

So when political leaders and negotiators meet in Washington, they will deal with security, sovereignty issues, timetables and such - but when it comes to settlements, everyone will freeze but the construction. That's because religious settlers are involved, and everyone is afraid of their brand of god.

Because religion is always viewed so negatively it is never looked at neutrally, as a factor to be accounted for, by answering to the legitimate religious needs of moderates, not demands of extremists.

Distinguishing and then incorporating the legitimate religious dimension of the conflict into conflict resolution is logical. Instead of fearing religion, this means thinking through strategic, moral and pragmatic religious needs. Think of it as the legalization and thus regulation of a soft drug, while banning the hard stuff from the table.

This could help negotiators address some of the tough realities. Here are two of thorniest: first, some people's religious needs violate other people's human rights (I refer here mainly to political and economic rights). What for the settlers is hallowed ground is the physical livelihood and property of another. Second: the religious needs of one community impinge on the religious claims and forms of expression of the other. Jerusalem is an axis mundi to both.

And here are some guidelines for addressing them in a way that combines universalist, secular democratic principles that can reach across community lines, with the de facto reality of religious particularism:

1. Religion versus human rights. In a contest of this kind, human rights take precedence, period. Human rights cannot be violated on theological grounds. That's modernity - and those who would deny it are simply living on the wrong end of history. Where religious belief does not directly threaten or violate human rights, then the question is political and shouldn't be overspiritualized (think of this as an overdose of a hard drug). On the ground that means: no new settlements, period. And even if large, existing places like Gush Etzion of Ma'aleh Adumim remain part of Israel, their infrastructure and roads cannot be allowed violate Palestinian movement or livelihood rights. But that's a political issue - and much less charged.

The claim that dismantling settlements violates human rights is outside of this argument because dismantling them is not theologically motivated. And it would be done by a democratically elected, representative government that enjoys decent ratings and rare coalition stability.

2. Competing religious claims. This mainly applies to Jerusalem. First, we can ask whether these claims are really mutually exclusive or if there is any hope of mutual existence (I avoid the term 'co-existence' with its connotations of failed naïveté). If mutual existence is possible, that is a principle that allows for shared control over the Temple Mount, or international arrangements.
But to agree on mutual existence, each nation must first recognize the other's religious claims (for example, to Jerusalem). Nobody likes this. Israelis and Palestinians tend to do the opposite, and there are many examples: Mordechai Kedar, a respected professor of Arabic literature at Bar Ilan University, argues that historically, the connection of Islam to Jerusalem was originally political, not sacred - this is a de-legitimization of the Muslim connection.

Like many Jews, Kedar often repeats that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Qu'ran. The notion that Palestinian and Muslim claims to Jerusalem are hyped, artificial or recent is widespread among certain Jewish circles.

Some Palestinian religious and political figures too are guilty of denying the Jewish historical and religious attachment to Jerusalem, both ancient and modern. Both political and religious figures such as Ikrima Sabri, former Mufti of Jerusalem, have denied Jewish connections to the Temple Mount, or the current legitimacy of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem at all.

Then in a terrible feedback loop, each side begins to panic that the de-legitimization will be followed by action from the other side to destroy its connection to holy places. Thus Kedar says that the current Muslim approach to Jews in Jerusalem is theological - but it is supersessionist. Palestinians often accuse Israel of trying to uproot the Muslim presence (as in the Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance controversy) and take over the Haram to rebuild the Temple. Jews complain that archeological sites are being looted, to obscure the ancient Jewish presence. And so the crushing sense of victimhood and potential annihilation - spiritual, not just physical - is blown up even larger than it already is for Israelis and Palestinians. It bears no repeating that this sense of victimhood is a primary obstacle to concessions on both sides.

In this sense, both sides must take responsibility for bringing religion in: specifically, the religious narrative and sensitivities of the other. Public acknowledgments of such by leaders could have a cautiously positive impact on each population. A third party, perhaps President Obama, could be ideal for helping this along.

The Middle East talks face enough obstacles already and religion is usually one of them. Responsible, thoughtful acceptance of its presence can help navigate - and maybe mitigate - its dangers. Eventually this might even yield opportunities.