Solving Religious Issues Is The Key To Middle East Peace
This past weekend's events near the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, if nothing else, reveal that at the root of the problems in the Middle East are disagreements over three basic questions: 1) Who is God? 2) Who are God's chosen people? 3) What land (and its boundaries) has God promised to His chosen people? Although many try to avoid it by focusing on issues like the Israeli settlements, the right of return of refugees and the monitoring of security arrangements, the problems in the Middle East, at their very core are religious and theological in nature.
In the view of most, this weekend's problems began when Tisha B'Av, the Temple Mount Faithful – a group that many in Israel describe as small and extreme, executed its annual strategy of dramatizing the issue of its right or lack of right of entry into the holy site of both Jews, Muslims and Christians – the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. Why were they doing this? Because Jews, in general, believe that it is in this location where the prophet Solomon's Temple is to be rebuilt. As part of this effort, many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have, for years, been looking for the actual physical descendants of Aaron, the high priest of Jehovah and the great spokesperson for the prophet Moses, in order to perform the rebuilding work. According to the Torah and Old Testament writings only the descendants of Aaron can perform the most critical and holy aspects of the rebuilding work. According to tradition the rest of the Children of Israel are to wait on the arrival of Aaron's family before the work can enter into certain phases or even begin.
The problem, however, is that Jews are not the only religious community who lay claim to the specific area where this rebuilding is to take place. Over 1 billion Muslims believe that this same area is the location from which Prophet Muhammad, in a spiritual experience, ascended into heaven around 1,400 years ago in what is known as the Mi'raj. Both Jews and Muslims hold very intense theological and religious beliefs about the sites. And because of the crusades of the last millenium; the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, and the Six-Day War in 1967; the alternating control of Jerusalem and its holy sites have continuously been exchanged between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Regardless to what pundits, politicians and military leaders say, the greatest issues of dispute surrounding Jerusalem have centered around three religious subjects: the location and time of the rebuilding of the Temple; the location of Prophet Muhammad's ascension into heaven; the location and contents of Jesus' tomb.
Yesterday's events at Jerusalem's holy sites should forcefully remind us of those subjects.
While Israel has sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary site as a result of the war in 1967, it is managed and maintained by Muslims.
This measure of joint control over the site has been problematic as both the Israeli and Muslim authorities are pushed by both of their constituencies to dramatize and unambiguously assert their measure of influence over the area(s), and at times, to deny the other side, freedoms that they are now permitted but rarely exercise.
Last September it was Ariel Sharon who wished to dramatize the point that Israelis have the right to enter the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. In order to symbolically paint that picture, the Israeli General decided to visit and stroll through the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount with 1,000 Israeli riot police during the time of a Muslim prayer service.
The result, in the eyes of most observers, is that Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians interpreted Sharon's decision as arrogant and provocative and as a result, a Palestinian uprising ocurred, now commonly referred to as the "Al Aqsa Intifada" – named after the Muslim Mosque in Jerusalem. It has lasted 10 months.
When it was announced that Tisha B'Av, the Temple Mount Faithful would be allowed by the Israeli High Court of Justice to symbolically lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple in a parking lot near the Temple Mount, as they were eventually denied entry into the holy site by Israeli police, the most volatile of issues exploded with Muslim groups describing the action as a violation of their control over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount but more importantly as a religious offense and attempt on the part of Jews to take control of the Noble Sanctuary. Because Muslims have taken an oath to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque and Noble Sanctuary, calls went throughout the Islamic world to defend the area. Some felt the calls were an overreaction and politically motivated while others felt they were justified.
Yesterday, a few hours after Tisha B'Av performed their ceremony, Palestinians and Muslims who saw the actions of Tisha B'Av as a provocation beamed the Jewish group and others with rocks near the Western Wall. Subsequently, hundreds of Israeli police stormed the Temple Mount, entering it for the first time since spring, and launched grenades.
And that is what makes the problems in the Middle East so intractable. The peace process is designed, in large part by the United States, to settle issues that primarily fall under the purview of Palestinians and Jews. In that respect issues like the legitimacy and level of settlement construction, the right of return of refugees, security arrangements and land and water rights can be addressed and possibly resolved under the current format, even though these issues are increasingly becoming international in scope as Israeli and Palestinian supporters abroad increasingly weigh in on these issues. As an example of this increased internationalization - from the viewpoint of the Israelis, in Israel and in the Diaspora - because 80 of the 130 Israelis killed since the Al-Aqsa Intifada were killed in the settlement areas, the issue of the settlement areas has been transformed from a largely local political movement into an international Jewish movement aimed at saving the lives of endangered Jews. As the narrow issues are broadened, they become more difficult to resolve and potentially more explosive.
But issues like the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount cannot be resolved by the Palestinians and Israelis with a U.S. intermediary or by Palestinians or Jews in foreign lands. That issue can only be resolved with the advice and consent of the international religious community – most notably the leading Jewish Rabbis and the most influential Muslims in the Islamic ulamah.
Last year, before talks broke down, a major step was taken in the right direction. We wrote about it in our October 2, 2000 editorial Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem:
"Up until last month, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had demanded exclusive control on the Temple Mount - a position that Israel has repeatedly indicated it finds unacceptable. However, in September, Arafat proposed that sovereignty on the Temple Mount be placed in the hands of a body consisting of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the Jerusalem Committee of the Islamic Organization Conference. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak has not ruled out Arafat's proposal but is under pressure from many inside of Israel, including Sharon, to reject Arafat's proposal.
Many Israelis oppose the recent Arafat proposal because it would mandate that although sovereignty on the Temple Mount would be placed in the hands of an international body, that international body would give Arafat jurisdiction and would appoint him as the custodian of the Islamic sites - an arrangement that would be pleasing to the majority of the leadership of the world's 1 billion Muslims.
The support of the international Islamic community is important for Arafat, in order to make up for the displeasure that his international proposal has been met with by Palestinians who want outright control of the area. Without international Islamic support the proposal could be derailed by a coalition of nationalist Palestinians."
The proposal never was agreed upon largely as the result of the meddling and paternalism of then-President Clinton and Secretary Of State Madeline Albright; the co-mingling of other issues by Israeli negotiators; the holding of special elections in Israel; and some questionable posturing by Yasser Arafat.
But had the proposal been discussed outside of the U.S-controlled peace process and in a forum where the most trusted religious leaders and theologians on both sides, and possibly those in the Christian community (who some Jews and Muslims view as a neutral third party) are included in a dialogue with political, military and economic leaders designed to establish peace, we believe that an agreement could have been reached that would have allowed Arafat and Barak to save face among their most strident nationalist supporters.
The formal Middle East peace process is one matter where the separation of politics and religion cannot generate peace. As much as many would like to believe that these problems can be solved by a dialogue between Arafat, Sharon, Mubarak or Bush; the permanent solution and the establishment of justice and a lasting peace can only be found in a "dialogue" between Muhammad, Aaron, Solomon and Jesus and all of those who sincerely claim Abraham as their father.
Monday, July 30, 2001