Journal Archive > 2002 > May

Blueprint for peace

New book takes a fresh look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Even by Middle East standards, this has been an extraordinary year of bloody conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, with suicide bombings, mass arrests, the assassination of the Israeli minister of tourism, the house arrest of Yasir Arafat, the lengthy standoff at the Church of the Nativity and Colin Powell's ill-fated peace mission.

According to some reports, as many as 1,621 Palestinians and 442 Israelis have been killed since September 2000. In a recent appearance on NBC's "Today" show, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright dismissed the PLO's Yasir Arafat and Israel's Ariel Sharon as "two stubborn old men" trapped by personal animosities and ancient rivalries.

Marc Gopin proposes a path for peace in the Middle East.

Marc Gopin, visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says he feels "sorrowful and very saddened" by the events, while burdened by the "missed opportunities" on both sides.

In his bold new book, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002), Gopin provides a fresh perspective with an analysis that transcends the usual political, diplomatic and military explanations, while providing evidence for the inseparability of religion and culture in understanding and finally resolving the conflict.

Flawed diplomacy
Gopin, who has interviewed Yasir Arafat and key members of his military staff as well as top Israeli officials, exposes deep flaws in traditional Middle East diplomacy. He also examines constraints on the ability of political leaders on both sides of the conflict to move the peace process forward, mistakes made during the Camp David talks in summer 2000 and the need for third parties to set in motion concrete and realistic steps to end the bloodshed. Finally, he offers a series of proposals aimed at long-term reconciliation—the need for a parallel track of peacemaking that focuses on religion, culture, symbolic gestures and moral commitments.

Gopin freely acknowledges that religion has been key in perpetuating the conflict, citing as examples Hamas and Islamic Jihad Jewish assassins, nationalist religious parties, aggressive seizing of land in the name of God, suicide-mass murder in the name of God and international religious actors with vested interests in worsening the conflict.

But he also makes a provocative, if not controversial argument for including religious activists in finding a creative solution. "It is the height of absurdity that in conflicts where religious people on both sides are playing every bit as damaging a role in undermining peace as the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, for example, somehow these religious actors are consistently eliminated from the sphere of diplomacy," he writes.

Political motivations
Gopin is sharply critical of the political establishment on all sides of the conflict. Indeed, he charges that with the exception of a few courageous leaders, governments generally are "allergic" to any diplomatic efforts other than official ones. "They dislike anything they can't control," he writes, adding, "ninety percent of what leaders do is what they can do politically and still stay in power or stay alive."

Gopin is critical of all the principal players, including the Bush administration. "The U.S. government and Colin Powell are now deeply involved. But they lost valuable time by letting the conflict fester," he said.

Gopin's solution requires political elites to engage the members of both groups in the peace process. He offers an utterly new blueprint for peace that is multi-religious, cross-cultural and broad-based. "The overwhelming, unrecognized and actually feared power here rests with the moods and instincts of the majority of the people embroiled in conflict...Cultural shifts in the populations are key to determining possible elite concessions, compromises and creative problem solving," he writes.

The need for cooperation
As a way of preparing for the necessary compromises on land, refugees and sovereignty over holy sites, Gopin urges ground-breaking cooperation between the political elites and courageous religious activists on all sides who would set the tone culturally for others though a series of relationship-building steps. These include culturally significant gestures of repentance, restitution, solidarity, empathy, cross-cultural character education and training, shared mourning of the dead and healing of the wounded.

"Getting the parties to engage in even a fraction of these gestures now would have a dramatic effect on the atmosphere of war that is currently pervasive," Gopin says.

Holy War, Holy Peace argues that only through such relationship-building steps can the path for a formal cease-fire be smoothed. "Peace processes will now be seen as a society-wide transformation in which the formal peace processes and negotiation become the last and crowning achievement of social and inter-group transformation, rather than a vain attempt to impose peace where it is not wanted," he writes.

Gopin thinks that both sides will need to experiment with the vast reservoir of religious and cultural uses of ritual "to heal, to establish basic patterns of civility, to transform broken relationships, to mourn, to repent, to end war and to make peace."