JERUSALEM — The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians directly involves far fewer people than live in New York City, and yet their fight galvanizes the world.
The US president is intimately engaged, many Arab nations are in turmoil, and much of the world's media cannot report enough about the "crisis in the Middle East," to quote the logo CNN uses in its coverage.
Why are so many people so concerned about this place, this Middle East, this "Holy Land"?
Decades ago, in the days of global struggle between democracy and communism, this region was the premier zone of superpower competition. The US and the Soviet Union veered close to military conflict during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. No wonder people paid attention.
Today there is an elemental quality to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - it may be the leading example of a situation where people say they really can't just get along with each other. The drama of this struggle to overcome intolerance is surely one thing that draws the world's scrutiny.
But the global concerns about the Middle East ultimately boil down to oil and belief. Roughly half of the world's population conceives of God in ways that were developed here in the Middle East. And nearly everyone on the planet partakes of a consumer culture dependent on the fossil fuels that are most abundant underneath Arabian sands.
The supply of energy from the Middle East isn't in question for the time being. But it's important not to forget 1973 - when Saudi Arabia stopped the flow of oil to the US because it was displeased about American support for Israel. The embargo caused a global economic slowdown.
But if the threat to the oil supply seems distant, the importance of religion in the Middle East dispute is waxing stronger. This July, the Israelis and the Palestinians, at the behest of President Clinton, began discussing in earnest what should be done with Jerusalem, the disputed and holy city both sides claim as their capital.
As a result, an essentially political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has taken on a more religious character. Some people see this as a positive step, in that the two sides are finally down to the nitty gritty, but others worry that too much has happened too fast, and the negotiations toward peace may have to be put on hold for quite a while.
Still, touching on the previously untouchable provides some indication of the sort of solution that will have to be devised to resolve a conflict that has riveted the world for a century.
"It will have to accommodate symbols," says sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who teaches at George Washington University in the US capital. "And symbols are very important. They are what give our lives meaning."
Instead of precise negotiations over political borders, economic agreements, and security measures, the two sides must talk about what scholars of religion call sacred space - bits of geography so highly valued that compromise at first seems impossible.
"In the West, religion is a Sunday affair," says Kamel Abu Jaber, the head of Jordan's Institute of Diplomacy. "But among the Arabs, it's a social identification, a political identification, even an economic identification.... For the Arabs, the religious dimension, once it is introduced, touches on their very soul."
Political scientists worry about the introduction of religion into political conflicts, because it does not often lend itself to the give-and-take solutions that most disputes require.
Mr. Abu Jaber attributes the "introduction of the religious dimension" to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, although it is not yet clear just how the sensitive issues of Jerusalem and its holy sites were raised at Camp David. Abu Jaber says this step "may be the beginning of a new era in the Arab-Israeli conflict" - one in which the dispute is more directly focussed on intangibles like "soul" and the religiously symbolic structures that lie cheek-by-jowl in Jerusalem's Old City.
"Religion has a capacity to help people to see the world through other people's eyes and to recognize the primacy of doing no harm to others," says the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a Roman Catholic priest who studies international relations and heads the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
But it also "has the capacity of re-inforcing differences among parties with a sense of an absolute character, rather than a negotiable character."
Arabs, adds Robert Pelletreau, a former US diplomat with long experience in the Middle East, "have been conditioned to think of Jerusalem in absolute terms, and so have Israelis."
But he notes that the Israeli and Palestinian delegations who met with Clinton at Camp David in July managed at least to talk about Jerusalem and how each side's claims might be satisfied. The missing element on both sides, Mr. Pelletreau adds, "was the conditioning of popular public opinion."
Reason for hope?
At the moment, with Israelis and Palestinians engaged in violent clashes, only partly dampened by an international peace summit held this week in Egypt, popular opinion is not exactly moving in the right direction.
But another summit this weekend - a meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo - may be a turning point. For a variety of reasons, including the desire to preserve their own regimes, the leaders may choose to continue with attempts to calm the situation, promote reconciliation, and encourage the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
If they are frustrated with Israel and come under pressure from publics who feel the same way, they may take a hard line against the Jewish state. A rigid Arab response could precipitate the drawing of battle lines and a worsening of the current conflict.
A wider danger is a revival of Western fears about an "Islamic threat" - concerns that aren't soothed when a US warship is attacked in the port of an Arab country, as the USS Cole was a week ago.
Images of Arabs demonstrating against Israel and on behalf of an Islamic Jerusalem, along with reports of hotheaded calls for "holy war," also contribute to the notion that the Middle East conflict is moving into an irrational phase.
But some Arab leaders - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak first among them - have mocked such calls to arms and worked hard to restore calm even as they criticize Israel's methods of responding to Palestinian unrest.
One expert notes that the tension between Israel and the Palestinians isn't the only thing that draws global attention to the lands that link Europe, Africa, and Asia.
If peace were to break out tomorrow between the Palestinians and the Israelis, says Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the world will still have to concern itself with the region.
Compared with other parts of the globe, she goes on to say, the Middle East enjoys the distinction of being the fastest growing demographically, slowest growing economically, and the region with the lowest level of political participation.
"That's a good recipe for frustration," Ms. Kipper says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society