Obama 23: Religion and the Israel-Palestinian Peace Process. 08.03.13

Obama 23: Religion and the Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 08.03.13


Howard Adelman

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located on what Israelis call the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as al-Haram al-Sharif. It is the site of the first and second temples. The Mosque is a gorgeous structure. Muslims revere the site as the one from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. The whole site, not just the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock also located on the Temple Mount, is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf under the auspices of Jordan, a trust that has governed the site since the 12th century.

Responding to unfounded rumours that Barack Obama plans to visit the site, and that in his 2008 Presidential campaign in his June 2008 speech to AIPAC, Obama supported an undivided Jerusalem, and Hamas warnings against such a visit, on 23 February 2013 Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, head of the High Islamic Council in Jerusalem, welcomed Obama`s visit but under the same conditions as previous VIP visits since 1967 and in accordance with a protocol drafted by the Waqf in 1967:

1) The visitor must enter through any of 10 gates not administered by Israel, preferably the Al-Asbat gate, and, thus, excluding the Mughrabi Gate connected to the Western Wall plaza by a bridge, for the IDF allegedly stole the keys to that gate from the Islamic Waqf; the High Islamic Council of Jerusalem does not want to explicitly or implicitly recognize Israeli sovereignty over any of the gates; only Muslims have sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

2) No Israeli official may accompany the president onto the mount.

3) The visit must be non-political and for sight-seeing only.

4) Permission must be extended by the Palestinians delivered to the American consulate in East Jerusalem.

In other words, the visit must be perceived, not as politically neutral, but as explicitly denying recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and implicitly acknowledging Muslim and Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem, at least the Old City. So although the claim is made that the visit must only be for sight-seeing and not be political, the process of arranging the visit is explicitly political. Further, since the White House has given no indication of any plans to visit the site, the rumour itself and the warnings are themselves political — to send a message that America should make no misstep that might implicitly recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The wider ramifications of sovereignty disputes were reinforced when, at the press conference where Sabri set out these conditions, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement in the 1948 occupied lands, was the other spokesperson at the news conference. He was quoted as saying: "It is known that we have our constants as Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians regarding the issue of Jerusalem and the Aqsa Mosque, and we confirm that Jerusalem and the Aqsa Mosque are under occupation; the occupier has no sovereignty or legitimacy over them and this occupation will inevitably end."

Obama was not singled out for such treatment. Similar conditions were put in place for Papal visits and when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited in June 2008. But all such visits are political. This was particularly true of Sarkozy`s for, in addressing Israeli legislators, he said, "There cannot be peace without an immediate and complete halt to settlement. There cannot be peace without recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states and the guarantee of free access to the holy places for all religions." Obama has never come close to expressing support for a re-divided Jerusalem or suggesting that Israel does not protect the access of all religious groups to their holy sites or. The latter assertion by Sarkozy was particularly insulting to Israelis who, since 1967, contend they have enforced such guarantees in contrast to pre-1967 practices.

Nor are the conditions for visiting the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque just applicable to non-Muslims. Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the country’s top Islamic cleric, visited the alAqsa Mosque last year and stirred up a hornet`s nest. His visit to Jerusalem broke with decades of opposition by Muslim leaders to traveling to areas under Israeli control. The head of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Mahmoud Ghozlan, called the visit “very strange” and said it violated the position the majority of Muslim clerics have taken “that there is no visiting to Jerusalem with continued Israeli occupation.” Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian, issued a religious fatwa a month prior to his visit insisting that Muslims should not visit Jerusalem “because it requires dealing with Zionist embassies to obtain visas.”

Gomaa’s visit was expressly described as non-official even though he explicitly also said that his visit was in solidarity with the Palestinians’ claim to the eastern part of the disputed city under Israel’s control. Gomaa went to Jerusalem under the auspices of the Jordanian royal family and in the company of Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohamed, president of the Al-Bayt Foundation, to inaugurate the Imam al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Studies at the Jerusalem Islamic research center of which Gomaa is a Trustee. Gomaa entered from Jordan without visas or stamps in his passport from Israel.

Not all were critical. Azzam Khatib, the director of the Palestinian Islamic clerical body which administers the Al-Aqsa compound, praised the visit for sending out a message that it is an Islamic, Arab site. Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, the mufti of Jerusalem and the preacher of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Abdel Azim Sahlab, chairman of the Board of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem, and Azzam al-Khatib, director of Jerusalem’s Religious Endowments (Waqf) Foundation, all accompanied him on the visit. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas “called on Muslims everywhere to visit Al-Aqsa and revitalize it by filling it with worshippers and pilgrims.”

So even religious Muslim visits become political.

Strictly political reports almost inevitably go the other way and broach religious issues. The report of EU diplomats in East Jerusalem to the European Union (Nonbinding Heads of Mission report for 2012) largely focused on settlements and recommendation that the EU endorse the boycott and divestment campaign aimed at products and services from Jewish settlements across the old Green Line. However, a significant portion of the report charged Israel with imposing restrictions on Muslim and Christian religious practice in Jerusalem and attempting to change the character of Jerusalem as a city sacred to all three faiths by enforcing “legal and policy restrictions on religious freedoms and on access in particular for Christian and Muslim worshippers to their holy sites in Jerusalem/Old City.”

This conclusion was widely reported by many organizations such as Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and Dump Veolia Information Group in the UK. Further, the Report accused the Israel Antiquities Authority of being in league with right-wing extremists to promote “a partisan historical narrative, placing emphasis on the biblical and Jewish connotations of the area while neglecting the Christian/Muslim claims of historic-archaeological ties to the same place.” In addition to denouncing the creation of this “exclusively Jewish narrative on Jerusalem,” Israeli authorities were accused of permitting a sharp increase in “the frequency and visibility of visits by Jewish radical political and religious groups, often in a provocative manner.” Most incendiary of all was the implicit endorsement of Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to “Hebronize” and change the status quo on the Temple Mount.

Now it is true that MK Moshe Feiglin of the Likud Party has an absolute disdain for Palestinians and refuses even to use the word. He is an ardent advocate for Jewish control of the Temple Mount and aspires to "expel the Moslem wakf from the Temple Mount and restore exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the Mount.” Feiglin is committed to continue to pray at the Muslim holy site of the Noble Sanctuary, and for which he has been arrested many times. Because of the sensitive nature of the religious site, Israeli authorities prohibit Jews from praying in the area. (Cf. Alex Kane "‘We’ll take over the Likud, we’ll take over the country’: Far-right Israeli MK Moshe Feiglin honored in New York City," Mondoweiss, 26 February 2013) If there is any evidence of Israeli official efforts to discriminate, it is against the right of fanatics like Feiglin to use religion to stir up trouble.

However, fanatics on one side feed fanaticism on the other side. Unfortunately, the Al-Aqsa services on Friday have often been the occasion for doing just that and today provided a case in point. Given the rumours surrounding the Obama visit, some Palestinian leaders used Friday services that are meant for prayer and reflection to, as the saying goes, "stir the kasha" and work the flock into a frenzy of hate and violence. As Reuters reported this morning, "Clashes broke out between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters in the occupied West Bank and at a holy site in Jerusalem on Friday as tensions rose just weeks before a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama." This followed the funeral of a Palestinian who was shot by the IDF in a confrontation two weeks ago and died yesterday. Of the 5,000 mourners, 100 broke away after Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and started pelting IDF soldiers with stones. The soldiers responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. No one died, but 35 protesters and some soldiers were injured, none seriously.

In contrast to the discussion of settlement activities, the EU Heads of Mission Report based its findings of Israeli discrimination against other religions on expressions of fear, rumours and misinterpretation, though it is valid to say that most archeological work before the Common Era does focus on Jewish sites for there were then no Christian or Muslim sites. None of the many leaks of the report that I tracked down provided evidence to back up those fears, rumours and interpretations.

When we touch matters that seem to be overwhelmingly political, we find they are not. Anti-Zionism, that is opposition to an ideology that fosters national self determination for the Jewish people, was a position once taken by a majority of Jews. Since the Holocaust, and certainly since the creation of the State of Israel, but especially after 1967, Zionism has become a central tenet for the vast majority of Jews, central to their Jewish identity and their beliefs as Jews. Nevertheless, a minority, like Tony Judt, an ex-Zionist, could be critical of Zionism per se. But this is very different than when the United Nations once declared that Zionism was racism, a resolution later rescinded. This year in Vienna at a UN conference on 28 February 2013 dedicated to dialogue between Islam and the West, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Errdogan insisted that Islamophobia should be, like Zionism, fascism and anti-semitism, declared a crime against humanity. He did not just say that he did not regard Jewish beliefs in self-determination to be unacceptable and akin to calls for Armenian or Kurdish calls for self-determination, but dubbed it a crime to be a Zionist, and this in the name of tolerance for Islam. In that context, anti-Zionism can be equated with anti-Semitism.

Contrast Obama’s speech with Erdogan’s when Obama addressed a conference of Muslims in Cairo on 4 June 2009. His opening words are worth quoting in full.

I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress… We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam. Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust. So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

Within this framework, Obama directly addressed the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied… Denying that fact [the death of six
million in the Holocaust] is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve."

Obama then went on to address the situation of the Palestinians.

The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own… the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires…Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society…America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Barack Obama has been clear and unequivocal all along. He supports a two state solution. He opposes settlements. He supports a united Jerusalem. In his 12 May interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, Obama went further. Obama as a kid who never felt rooted expressed a visceral identification with the Zionism taught to him at camp by a Jewish-American – of return to a homeland, of preserving a culture and the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, that gave him an "enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves." In addition to the great resonance the Jewish story had with the African-American experience. Obama clearly identified with "the fundamental premise of Israel and the need to preserve a Jewish state that is secure. is, I think, a just idea and one that should be supported here in the United States and around the world…I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions."

Sometimes I’m attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it’s more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don’t think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they’ve interacted with me long enough to know that I’ve got it in my gut…I’ve been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it’s curious…"My commitment, our commitment, to Israel’s security is non-negotiable.” Injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe. I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically. I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process, then we’re going to be stuck in the same status quo that we’ve been stuck in for decades now.

So when Daniel Pipes on 22 January 2013 writes about Barack Obama’s long held anti-Zionist views in The National Review Online, it is simply incredulous. The fact that Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor, who endorsed Obama for re-election "thought that there would come a time when [Obama] would renege on . . . his support of Israel," does not undermine my incredulity but enlarges it. Suggesting that Obama is reverting to his early anti-Zionist views when there is no evidence that he held such views because he listened to a talk by Edward Said (I had had lunch with Edward Said after I became a Zionist) or because he consorted with Rashid Khalidi with whom I myself worked on his reformulation of the "right of return" to Palestine rather their original homes, is simply a fraud.

Andrew Preston in his 2012 book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, correctly locates Obama’s views in Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism in which faith provides the moral core of foreign policy and a moral compass for a foreign policy rooted in realism and a recognition that serious evil exists in the world but that it must be challenged and counter-acted by just war in pursuit of a just peace. Expect Obama to do that, but as a facilitator and not one who will impose a solution on either the Israelis or the Palestinians, and as someone who will put America’s interests first and foremost, but interests guided by his moral compass of support for the security of Israel and for self-determination by the Palestinian people.

Monday The Blackness of Obama


Obama, Palestine, Israel, settlements, Jerusalem, Zionism, Islam]

Obama 23.Religion.Politics.07.03.13.doc

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