The leaders not at peace table

As Mideast peace parleys restart, some call for a larger role for religious leaders.

It sounds so obvious.

"Without considering the religious feelings of the two tribes here," says Rabbi Menachem Frohman, referring to his fellow Israelis and the Palestinians, "there will be no peace."

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mainly a fight between two groups determined to express their national identities on territory the other side also claims, the religious dimension of the dispute is increasingly plain to see.

As the two sides prepare to meet with President Clinton in Washington this week, there is an emerging recognition among some officials that Jewish and Muslim representatives can help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But getting officials to act on that recognition is not easy, say religious leaders here and in the US. Secular-minded politicians and diplomats, they say, are more likely to see religion as a force that causes or exacerbates conflict.

The current violence, which has claimed nearly 200 lives over the past five weeks, began when an Israeli politician visited a Jerusalem mosque compound that Jews also hold sacred. More than ever before, the Palestinians are characterizing their claim to Jerusalem as a means to defend Islamic sites from the control of the Jewish state.

That is precisely why Rabbi Frohman and other religious leaders argue that a successful solution must also encompass matters of religion. Agreements that only address politics, security, and economics, they insist, will founder.

Worse yet, says Sheikh Abu Saleh al-Refai, a Muslim cleric who lives in a Palestinian village in the West Bank and who has worked closely with Frohman, there is a danger that "Jewish and Islamic fanatics will ignite the fire" of religious war.

Nearly two years ago, Rabbi Marc Gopin, an ally of Frohman's who teaches conflict resolution and leads a congregation in the Boston area, wrote Mr. Clinton a letter about the need for religious dialogue in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"While religious hostility often is an aspect of national or ethnic conflict," Clinton wrote in reply, "I am convinced that religious dialogue just as often can be one of its principal remedies." The president said he had asked National Security Council officials to "follow up with you on your ideas."

Rabbi Gopin says the follow up never took place. "It seems to me that the president himself is interested" in fostering religious dialogue, Gopin adds, "and the apparatus of diplomacy won't allow it to be raised."

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a member of the Israeli Cabinet, says Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other top officials have an intellectual grasp of the role that religion plays in the conflict with the Palestinians and should play in its solution. "But if you ask me whether on a deeper level they have an understanding of the religious dimension," he adds, "I will leave the question open."

Even so, Frohman and Gopin also say that government officials are of necessity becoming more receptive to ideas about religious peacemaking.

"I believe," adds Sheikh Abu Saleh, speaking about Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials, "that they are waiting for us to go help them to make peace."

Talks toward a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, led by Clinton at Camp David in July, failed mainly because of disagreements over the future status of Jerusalem and its holy sites. The strife of recent weeks has often taken on religious overtones, with Palestinian demonstrators decrying Jews, and Israelis worrying aloud about the threat that Islamic political movements may pose to their state.

Frohman speaks often about his "admired government," but he says that he believes that its officials "are now a little confused" by their failure at the negotiating table and by the recent violence. "They see that they have a little bit to learn."

Frohman may be ideally situated to give voice to a religious solution. Trained by rabbis who have provided the theological justification for many Israelis to establish settlements on Arab lands, Frohman is the chief rabbi of a community called Tekoa that sits in the edge of the Judean desert and in the midst of the Palestinian West Bank. The Old Testament identifies Tekoa as the home of the prophet Amos.

Decades ago Frohman diverged from the ideology of most settlers, who say that Israel should maintain sovereignty over Arab lands that Jews consider part of their biblical birthright. The rabbi suggested an improbable solution: that Israel and Palestine rule simultaneously over the Holy Land as two states inhabiting the same space.

In more recent years he has turned his attention to Jerusalem, arguing that it should be a city of peace shared by all peoples and religions. Israelis and Palestinians, in Frohman's view, should situate their governments in outlying suburbs and make the center of Jerusalem an example of co-existence and tolerance.

He has also pursued opportunities to share stages and discussions with Muslim leaders, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual shepherd of the militantly anti-Israeli group Hamas. Frohman has also met with Mr. Arafat several times, and Abu Saleh says the Palestinian leader is supportive of religious peacemaking and on at least one occasion provided the leaders a public forum on Palestinian television.

Frohman takes a mystical approach to religion and speaks with evident delight about the state of mind that believers of different faiths can reach after several hours of praising God together.

To end the current crisis, he says, religious leaders on both sides must step forward - together if possible - to honor the people of the other religion, beginning with simple statements of praise that would help people see what they hold in common. Abu Saleh, now on a speaking tour in the US, calls for a "big summit of spiritual leaders" in Jerusalem.

For many of these clerics, stepping forward to preach tolerance and mutual acceptance is a potentially dangerous proposition. Islamic and Jewish zealots have killed political leaders who have worked toward Arab-Israeli peace.

This risk may be one reason why religious leaders have not been more public so far, but it is also true that most media organizations pay more attention to politicians and rioters than to religious figures.

Frohman makes no apologies for any vagueness in his prescriptions. "A religious solution means to be open [to God], and not to think you are managing the world," he says.

He grants that the situation - especially as depicted in media coverage dominated by images of violence - is grim. Echoing the biblical injunction to "hear, O Israel," Frohman says: "I am a Jew who is commanded to hear, not only to see."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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