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Religion and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

March 08, 2010 // 11:00am1:00pm
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While religion is often cited as a determining component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion's significance and use for Israelis and Palestinians is considerably more complex, according to three experts on the conflict. The three panelists discussed the role of religion in the ongoing conflict and addressed religion's function in prospects for peace.

The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland sponsored a panel discussion with Yuli Tamir, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Former Israeli Minister of Education; Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair, University of Maryland; and Edward Luttwak, a Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. on March 8, 2010; Robert Litwak, Vice President for Programs and Director, International Security Studies, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Tamir discussed how negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians require a pragmatic approach that deals with both the political and religious layers of the conflict. While a pragmatic solution would not be ideal for either side, it would, she argued, generate livable conditions for both communities. Moreover, a maximalist position on the most difficult issues, such as the right of return or Jerusalem, will only lead to continued disagreements. When the conflict is framed as a religious conflict that transcends the two nationalist communities, it makes the conflict essentially insoluble. Thus, Tamir argued, the conflict's religious language needs to be exchanged for pragmatic, political language. She addressed the need for the international community in promoting such a dialogue through negotiations.

In clarifying the issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Telhami emphasized that religion is not a cause or primary barrier to the absence of a resolution to the conflict. In the past decade, there has been an infusion of religion into politics on both sides, but this conflict is not a function of religion, he contended. Rather, religion is a direct function of politics that relates to modern political concepts of sovereignty, territorial control, and nationalism. Religion is not as important a factor as widely assumed since the conflict is based largely on secular nationalism. Hamas, for instance, is not a worldwide jihadist organization, but rather, uses nationalist rhetoric to define the conflict with Israel. Telhami argued that two events -- the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks -- contributed to rising religious nationalism and a new global polarization through which both sides sought to mobilize broader support.

Luttwak also argued that religion is not the key determinant of the Israel-Palestinian conflict even though religion is politically used to define it. Providing regional context on the issue of religion, he discussed how religion is presented in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon. He stressed that religion plays less of a role in Israeli-Palestinian conflict than other situations in the region, remarking that it is difficult to analyze religion because it can be systematically misrepresented and manufactured by secular groups who adopt religious language. This feature, Luttwak concluded, further complicates a conflict that is already "terrifically complex."

Drafted by Kendra Heideman on behalf of the Middle East Program

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