The trip from Jerusalem to the heart of Hebron, a neighborhood that is considered the stronghold of Palestinian opposition movements, takes only half an hour by car, but it is light years away in Middle Eastern terms. I went to Hebron to express condolences to the family of the Hebron sheik, Talal Sider, who in the past few years was a senior and full partner to the attempts to persuade the leaders of the three faiths to turn religion into a lever for peace, brotherhood and hope.
The tens of thousands of people who participated in the funeral bore witness to the fact that despite the change in direction that Sheik Talal, one of the founders of Hamas, underwent, he remained a venerated religious and spiritual leader. The courageous path he chose, until he served in the Palestinian Authority as a minister and participated in the interfaith meetings, teaches us that despite everything it is possible to change. His change was not a tactical political move but stemmed from a pure religious stance.
Despite a difference in political positions and cultural dissimilarities, it turns out that the common religious denominator has the strength to create a different language. Contrary to what some Israelis think, the Palestinians are also sick and tired of things. They also want their children to come home safely. They also want to live.
The tendency to see the half-empty glass sometimes makes us forget the other half, the full one. In the past three decades, ever since the messages sent by Anwar Sadat at the beginning of the 1970s and his historic visit to Jerusalem, there has been a slow but steady and constant process among the 22 Arab countries of coming to terms with, and reconciling to the idea of, the existence of the state of Israel.
This process has not yet seeped down completely to the Muslim religious leadership. The rise in strength of Islam as an extremely significant force in politics has created a certain differentiation between the positions of the Muslim states and their spiritual leaders. Alongside expressions of hatred, some of them purely anti-Semitic, the first seeds of acceptance of the existence of Israel and a wish to become reconciled with it are starting to blossom among the spiritual leaders.
This voice was heard loud and clear in the interfaith meetings with the spiritual and educational leaders, in courageous and intensive programs, and even in some religious rulings that emanated from the schools of learning of religious sages in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the territories. Everything must be done so that this positive trend can create a positive response in our religious camp, so that the message can also seep down among us.
The half-full glass of the Mecca agreement could be the one to show the way. With the Hamas victory in the elections, that organization found itself in charge of an administration whose right to exist came from the Oslo agreements. When it looked out from the roof after the victory celebrations, Hamas discovered to its great anxiety that there was a ladder below it offering a way to climb down from the roof, from the utopian Muslim ideology to the ground of reality, a large part of which was the need to reconcile with the existence of the state of Israel.
The agreement is far from satisfying all the requirements laid down by the Quartet to the PA. But if the sides know how to use the ladder, they will be able, with its help and with the required caution, to reach another diplomatic horizon, one of hope and reconciliation. The group picture of the Palestinian leaders, dressed in white in Mecca, once again stresses the important place and the great power of the religious path on the way to solving the conflict. We, too, no less than the others, need to climb down the ladder.
It is not possible to make peace with only half of the Palestinians. Abu Mazen cannot supply all the goods himself. The authority he received from Hamas to hold negotiations and a referendum has both political and religious significance. Even the terrorist, Khaled Meshal, has unwittingly started to speak a different language. This cruel and hard-hearted man has not yet accepted the state of Israel as an accepted fact, but even his declarations that the PA is obliged to uphold the agreements with Israel is indeed "a new diplomatic language" that Hamas has adopted because of "national necessity."
Together with Israel's uncompromising demand for the eradication of terror and for maintaining security, we must also broaden the existing channels of dialogue. Those who do not want the current leadership will tomorrow get Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida instead. If we bury all hope about the current alternative, we will find ourselves facing an Arab world united behind the Iranian intentions to annihilate Israel.
The continuation of the present situation will bring upon us nothing but disaster. With the lack of a diplomatic alternative, it is merely a question of time until the Israel Defense Forces returns to Gaza. If we allow despair to overcome us, it will do so quickly and easily. Among us also there is a need to realize that without the peace we yearn for, it is not possible morally to continue ruling over the lives of 3.5 million Arabs who do not want us. This moral position must drive us also to make the effort to try to climb the ladder of opportunity that has been placed at our side.
Michael Melchior is chairman of the Knesset's Education and Culture Committee.