Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dissolving into a religious war?

Halting the slide into religiously fueled conflict lies with the Israelis and Palestinians, regional analysts say. But neither of the leaders of the two sides appears inclined to redirect energies toward a renewed peace effort.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israelis attend the funerals of Aryeh Kupinsky, Cary William Levine, and Avraham Goldberg, three of the four people killed in a shooting attack at a synagogue in Jerusalem, Tuesday. Two Palestinian cousins armed with meat cleavers and a gun stormed the Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers. Police killed the attackers in a shootout.

The spiral of violence in Jerusalem that reached a shocking point this week with Tuesday's deadly attack by two Palestinians on a West Jerusalem synagogue is stoking fears that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shifting into a religious war.

But that outcome is not a foregone conclusion, say some regional analysts who point to signs that the wider publics on both sides want to avoid such an incendiary development.

At the same time, however, prospects for this latest spike to prompt leaders to renew efforts to turn the surge in violence into progress toward peace – as has occurred in the past – look unlikely now, some say.

The reason for that downbeat assessment, they add, is that neither of the leaders of the two sides appears to have either the strength or the inclination to respond to tensions that have been rising for months with an initiative that involves engaging the other side.

“This is not what I would consider a game-changer in the conflict,” says Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat with long experience in the Middle East who is now a distinguished scholar at Washington’s Wilson Center. “That would require a degree of support and sustainability on both sides,” he adds, “that at least so far we just aren’t seeing.”

Key groups to watch are right-wing Israelis and the 300,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem and have Israeli papers, Mr. Miller says. Most of Jerusalem’s Arab population “is not radicalized” and would give more weight to the advantages they have living and working in Israel than to supporting a disruptive wave of violence, he says.

“The question now is whether this heightened level of tension becomes a kind of new normal,” Miller says. “But I don’t think the balance tips to a systematic uprising unless some extraordinary additional action occurs.”

Jerusalem has been rocked by weeks of rioting and other violence set off by tensions over the Temple Mount, the site of Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims.

Another view is that such “extraordinary” incidents are already occurring, suggesting the conflict is becoming increasingly religious in nature – a turn that could spell doom for any vision of a two-state peace settlement, some say.

“This latest incident is a qualitative acceleration of the crisis because it was carried out at a synagogue rather than at some symbol of the Israeli state,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle East affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The very dangerous prospect is that it hastens the slide to an all-out religious war,” he adds, “which would close the door on any settlement through compromise.”

A nationalist conflict can potentially be resolved through give-and-take, Mr. Phillips notes, “but if it turns into a religious conflict, that becomes much harder, if not impossible, because then compromise is likely to be considered blasphemy.”

What makes the current spike in violence different – and potentially more dangerous – in the eyes of others is that acts on both sides are being carried out by individuals with some religious motivation rather than by groups with stated political aims.

“This is more sectarian and more susceptible to individual actions than what we saw in the past, when the intifadas were largely politically organized,” says Bruce Jentleson, a Middle East expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

Israeli authorities are worried about the rise of “lone wolf” actors – in part because such perpetrators are much more difficult for intelligence agencies to stop than those who are motivated or deployed by a group.

Palestinian youths, in particular, are exhibiting an anger at Israelis coupled with an alienation from their own leadership – one element of a situation that is “significantly different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Mr. Jentleson says.

Reversing the slide into uncharted antagonisms is possible, experts say – but would require a kind of leadership that so far neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has displayed.

Phillips places the onus for “stepping back from the abyss” on Mr. Abbas, whom he says is responsible for much of the “incendiary rhetoric” that has stoked tensions in recent weeks.

But others say neither leader seems ready or inclined to seize the moment and redirect energies toward a calming of tensions and a renewed peace effort. “This is a moment for leaders to be bold and act on their people’s larger interests, but so far the Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been blaming the other side and being opportunistic about these events,” Jentleson says.

Citing the example of Yitzhak Rabin, who was Israeli defense minister at the time of the first intifada but would go on to be considered the Palestinians’ “partner for peace” and to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Miller of the Wilson Center says exchanging current tensions for dialogue would require “leadership on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians that just doesn’t exist right now.”

“It would take very different leaders on both sides to exploit this crisis in a way that could stabilize things and advance relations between the two communities,” he adds.

In this situation, there is a role for the United States – but much like in the peace process, reversing the slide into violence is not something the US can make happen on its own, experts say.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Amman, Jordan, last week where he met separately with both Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, describing his meetings as an effort to “smother the sparks of immediate tension so that they don’t become a fire that is absolutely out of control.” But this week, it’s hard to see what those meetings could have produced.

“Stepping back from the abyss and turning instead to a way forward is definitely possible, but both sides have to want it,” says Jentleson. “It has to come from them first, and then at that point we can step in and help them do it."

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