At Shimon Peres’s funeral last year, famed author Amos Oz described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a simple but striking metaphor.
“Because Israelis and Palestinians cannot suddenly become one happy family, cannot jump together into a double bed and go on a honeymoon, there is no other way than to divide this house into apartments,” he said, “and to turn it into a house for two families.”
The competing claims for the same territory by Israelis and Palestinians have often been described in terms of real estate. The Land of Israel — or alternatively, “historic Palestine” — is but a piece of property that needs to be divided, and as soon as we can figure out how to do that fairly, the conflict will end.
Leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah have long embraced this narrative, and while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years introduced nationality or peoplehood into the equation — by demanding the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — both sides have been extremely wary of attempts to view the century-old conflict through a religious lens.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that Donald Trump, a former real estate magnate, is the one seemingly departing from the position that this conflict is merely about competing claims to a piece of land.
Instead, he appears eager to effect a paradigm shift: Rather than approaching Israel/Palestine as a property that a good negotiator can convince both parties to divide, he approaches the issue, at least initially, as a conflict of good versus evil that could easily be solved if only the good people of all religions would unite against those abusing faith for their wicked ends.
“This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” Trump said Sunday in Saudi Arabia, referring to the fight against terrorism. “This is a battle between good and evil.”
Addressing political leaders from Arab and Muslim countries, Trump mentioned “God” a whopping nine times. The theme of his speech was the joint need to combat terrorism, but it was infused with a spiritual message. “Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory — piety to evil will bring you no dignity,” he warned. “If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned.”
For “many centuries,” Christians, Muslims and Jews have been living “side by side” in the Middle East, Trump went on. “We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again — and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.”
Trump described Saudi Arabia, his first destination on his first presidential trip outside the US, as “the nation that serves as custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic faith.” After Riyadh, he will come to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Vatican — three additional sites holy to the Abrahamic religions. “If these three faiths can join together in cooperation,” he declared, “then peace in this world is possible — including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
The White House made plain that Trump’s unprecedented visit Monday to the Western Wall — he’ll be the first serving US president to visit the disputed site — should be seen as a gesture aimed at promoting interfaith tolerance, not a political statement.
The fact that Trump will pray at the site without any official Israeli accompaniment is an indication that he does not want the religious message of his visit to be overshadowed by speculation over a possible American recognition of Israeli sovereignty there.
National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster on Friday emphasized that a central goal of Trump’s visit to the Middle East is “to broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends and to the faithful of three of the world’s greatest religions.” The president wants “to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity” and deliver “a message of tolerance and of hope to billions, including to millions of Americans who profess these faiths.”
It appears that the focus on religious symbolism is more than a mere gimmick to provide good photo ops or feel-good sound bites.
In March, Jason Greenblatt, the US administration’s special envoy for international negotiations, took time to meet with senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Jerusalem.
Greenblatt reportedly said the 90-minute encounter, attended by both Israeli chief rabbis and the chief justice of the Palestinian Authority’s sharia court, was the most important meeting of his week-long tour in the region.
“The leaders agreed that the search for peace must be governed by respect for life and human dignity for all people; to work together for peace, reconciliation, and a just solution; and to reject all incitement to violence,” said a statement released by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv at the time.
Rabbi David Rosen, an interfaith adviser to the Israel Chief Rabbinate, deemed Greenblatt’s initiative “historic” in that it marked the first time in recent memory that a senior US administration official engaged in peacemaking efforts asked to meet with religious leaders.
“From that point of view it’s very historic, because the impression previous administrations’ peace initiatives have given is that religion has not been considered an important factor in trying to resolve the conflict,” Rosen told The Times of Israel shortly after the meeting concluded. “Jason Greenblatt has given precisely the reverse message.”
This focus on the religious dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not gone unnoticed in Jerusalem.
“The Americans want to emphasize that what they’re looking for is harmony between the main religions, that all three religions might be united around the idea of peace,” said Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser.
The architects of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians entirely ignored the religious aspects of the conflict, he said. “That was a huge mistake.”
Talking about interfaith dialogue and tolerance will not bring peace tomorrow, Amidror stressed. “But we have to begin somewhere,” and the understanding that there is a religious element to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic is a welcome first step.
Promoting religious tolerance is, of course, not the only element of Trump’s Middle East strategy. In his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week he will also want to talk business, and will seek to find out what concrete policy proposals each side can bring to the table to foster a climate conducive to peace.
His predecessors have done exactly that and failed spectacularly. It is by no means guaranteed — and that’s an understatement — that Trump’s attempt to clinch what he’s called the “ultimate deal” will see any more success. But at the very least, an approach that pairs political pressure on both sides with an effort to create goodwill among the region’s religious groups is something fresh.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.