If there is consensus about anything regarding Hillary Clinton’s first visit to the Middle East as Secretary of State, it is that a dramatic new approach is needed in what is lazily referred to as the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”
She should start with a simple recognition that for the last eight years, there has been neither “peace” nor “process.”
So why call it that?
Words matter. Madame Secretary of State needs to coin a new phrase that reflects a new way of thinking about what it is President Obama’s administration is trying to achieve.
Is it reconciliation? Is it an armistice that provides a framework for peace? Is it a path toward a two-state solution?
As she makes her rounds this week, first to Egypt for a high-level conference on humanitarian assistance for Gaza and then to Jerusalem to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, she will need to radically redefine the process and come up with her own strategy.
To figure that out, she should do what neither her husband Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush nor any Israeli prime minister or Palestinian leadership has sufficiently or genuinely done before.
That is, consult the religious leadership among the three Abrahamic faiths that are held by these two peoples about how best to solve the conflict.
There is a growing sense among many in the Middle East that the more traditional and moderate religious leadership on both sides may hold keys to resolving the conflict, or at least preparing the two sides for the compromises that will be necessary to accept the terms of a peace deal.
By seeking out the voices of Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leadership in Israel and Palestine, all of the players from Washington to Jerusalem to Gaza will tap into the vast, traditional majority of those people who live there.
Too often there are too many who are too quick to sideline religious voices because they are seen as the problem, not the solution. That’s a huge mistake.
For sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is politically based, not religion based. It’s about land and both sides’ right to security and a future.
The apocalyptic theologies of the Jewish settlement movement and the nihilistic views of the Islamic fundamentalist movement of Hamas have definitely changed the equation.
The settlers and Hamas have wired the struggle with a religious fuse that triggers violence.
But the only way to de-fuse what these two extremes have created is to bring in the experts who understand the wiring.
It is the Jewish rabbis, Muslim sheikhs and Christian clerics who are the sapers of this ticking, religious bomb. They know the theology and can help both sides see the need to defuse the explosive before it blows once again.
If Hillary relies on the same old secular leadership within Israel and the Palestinian Authority, she and the U.S. envoy George Mitchell will surround themselves with the same, tired, cynical and ultimately doomed rhetoric that will go nowhere.
These secular leaders do not hear the music of faith, and the ways in which it can be employed to tap into the traditions for reconciliation that can bring about what author Marc Gopin calls a “deepened peacemaking process.”
In his excellent book "Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East," Gopin, who is the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, clearly states that “the peace process has barely penetrated the moral consciousness of either side.”
There are a number of places to start to find this “moral consciousness” in the institutions and inter-faith centers that recognize this one truth: that the Holy Land has deep meaning for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Clinton could start by looking to the signatories of the so-called “Alexandria Process,” a group of religious leaders from Israel and Palestine who signed an important agreement in Alexandria, Egypt in 2002 pledging to work together for a just and lasting peace.
A first point of contact on the Israeli side could be Rabbi Michael Melchior. As a former deputy foreign minister in charge of religious affairs and now the head of the small Meimad party, Melchior has much to offer and it was seen as a terrible slight that he was cut out of the Camp David negotiations even though they addressed the Jewish state’s sacred religious core in Jerusalem.
On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority chief justice Sheikh Taisir Tamimi has proven a stodgy but sometimes productive force. Among the Holy Land’s Arab Christians, she should seek out the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who presides over the dwindling, but still important Roman Catholic congregation among the Palestinian Christians.
Hearing these religious leaders out will help to deprive the religious extremists from continuing to define the terms of the debate.
For too long, the debate has been shaped by the settlers and Hamas. And they have succeeded in undermining all efforts toward finding peace. The settlers continue to build and Hamas continues to send rockets.
For the administration of George W. Bush, the strategy was hands off and all that happened was a deepening of hatreds and the violence it brings.
For President Clinton, the strategy was a micro-managed process that carried little real enforcement for both sides to live up to their agreements.
As a result, the July 2000 Camp David talks ended with President Bill Clinton failing to clinch an agreement and then blew up into the second intifada and the raging violence we have seen since.
The Obama administration began with a strong start by naming Mitchell, who Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa called the “personification of the honest broker.”
But how Mitchell establishes himself in that role remains to be seen.
The former Senator from Maine was masterful in Belfast and wrote an important report on the Israeli-Palestinian situation in 2001. But Belfast — an insurgency by nationalists with a clear agenda among two traditions within the same faith — is not exactly parallel to what Mitchell is walking into in Jerusalem. And much has changed on the landscape since 2001.
If Mitchell is doing his research, he might look back to read the words of the late and wise King Hussein of Jordan who proposed a solution that is quite logical to people of faith when it comes to who should hold sovereignty over Jerusalem and its overlapping sacred space for all three Abrahamic faiths.
As King Hussein described it, Jerusalem, the old Holy City, is "above sovereignty" by any single state. It should be held as "a symbol of peace between the followers of all three monotheistic faiths" with administrative control by Israelis and Palestinians.
The only formula for success in Jerusalem, the King long argued, was "sovereignty under God."