Analysis

Netanyahu and Abbas, Both Secular, Ride the Religious Tiger Away From Peace

Instead of talking borders, security and practical solutions, the two leaders have deliberately moved explosive issues from 3,000 years ago to center stage, threatening any possible compromise

 Image released by Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman shows Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016.
GPO, Reuters

The emotional storm that erupted after UNESCO’s executive board adopted its resolution on Jerusalem was predictable, but its scope and intensity were surprising. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other coalition members exaggerated the resolution’s significance a bit for their own political purposes. But both in Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide, a portion of the anger over this resolution, which described the Temple Mount and its environs solely according to the Muslim narrative and relegated “the Western Wall” to parentheses, was both authentic and justified.

Unsurprisingly, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova published a lengthy and detailed statement harshly criticizing the resolution, which was backed by 24 of the executive board’s member states. In diplomatic but nonetheless clear language, she assailed the motives of the states that proposed, pushed and voted for the resolution.

“To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site,” her statement said. She also stressed that what the Muslims term the Al-Aqsa Mosque or Haram al-Sharif is the Temple Mount to Jews.

The UNESCO resolution was yet another example of the serious deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations ever since Netanyahu entered the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009. Netanyahu naturally likes to take personal credit for every success in the international arena. But when it comes to diplomatic failures like this one, he doesn’t rush to take responsibility. In his view, such failures are due to force majeure or simple anti-Semitism.

Yet the resolution was a catastrophe foretold. The seeds of the disaster were planted in October 2011, when the Palestinians were accepted by UNESCO as a full member state. And the main reason the Palestinians decided to abandon bilateral negotiations in favor of unilateral steps at UN institutions during those years was their deep distrust of Netanyahu and of the seriousness of his intentions in the peace process. Had the diplomatic situation between Israel and the Palestinians been different, things might look different today.

It’s not by chance that when he was conducting negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in 2007-08, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t launch any moves at the United Nations. Indeed, he vigorously opposed them, and stuck instead to direct talks. But when he heard from Netanyahu in September 2010 that the Israeli leader refused to discuss the issue of borders, and that even if a Palestinian state were established, the Israel Defense Forces would remain in its territory for at least 40 years, he concluded that there’s no one to talk to and switched to making moves at the United Nations.

The confrontation over the UNESCO resolution also highlights a very worrying shift in the way both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership talk about the peace process. From the start of the Oslo process in the early 1990s through the Annapolis process in 2008, bilateral negotiations focused on trying to find a practical solution to a political/territorial conflict between two peoples and sought to avoid getting dragged into a theological, historical or religious debate.

But if in the past, historical and religious narratives remained behind the scenes or played only a marginal role in the conflict, in the Netanyahu-Abbas era, both leaders have deliberately moved these explosive issues to center stage. Instead of talking about borders, security and practical solutions to issues like Jerusalem and the refugees, Netanyahu and Abbas argue over things that happened 3,000 years ago, over national narratives and religious beliefs.

Ever since 2009, and especially over the last two years, both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership have been talking in a way that leads to a religious war. The irony is that Netanyahu and Abbas are both driving in this direction even though neither is religious himself.

Netanyahu is completely secular, and he understands quite well that the conflict is political and solvable. The agreement he signed in 1997, which transferred control over Hebron, the city of the patriarchs, to the Palestinians, is a prime example of this. And one can cite similar examples on Abbas’ part. But since 2009, both have been riding the religious tiger.

The discourse that has developed on their watches is that of a zero-sum game in which both sides speak in terms of “either us or them,” even though it’s obvious to everyone that any solution will involve both us and them. This conduct by Netanyahu and Abbas not only causes short-term damage, in the form of the absence of a diplomatic solution, but also long-term damage to public opinion on both sides. If the conflict is about justice, history and religion, then the arguments on both sides become less rational and the very idea of compromise becomes less relevant.