As secular peace efforts stammer in Israel, religious mediators hope to intervene

JERUSALEM – The rabbi stood in front of the tomb of the Imam, weeping while giving his eulogy. In life, Rabbi Michael Melchior said, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish had promised him that he would never leave him. In death, the sheikh had left him feeling as helpless as an orphan.

Sheikh Abdullah died in 2017, four years before the Islamist party he helped found, Raam, became the first independent Arab faction to join an Israeli governing coalition. But the sheikh’s funeral and his unlikely friendship with Rabbi Melchior, along with their covert attempts to restore peace between Israelis and Palestinians, were all part of an unexpected decades-long history of an effort by some Islamists. find a place in Israeli politics.

For Mansour Abbas, a politician standing in tears to the rabbi’s right that day, the sheikh’s death was one of the crucial stages in his journey to lead Raam into the government of Israel.

“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and Rabbi Melchior’s speech, I was struck by the fact that I had to commit to the joint approach of Sheikh Abdallah and Rabbi Melchior,” said Mr. Abbas, who has become Raam leader in 2018 and entered parliament two years ago. The speech and the funeral “took me from being a supporter and minor contributor to being someone who wants to strengthen it and move it forward,” he said.

For some unaware of the teachings of Sheikh Abdallah, the entry of Mr. Abbas to the government in June was a surprise.

A political party led by Arab citizens of Israel had not officially joined an Israeli government since the 1970s. Tensions between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel were at their highest for years after days of violent clashes in May. And Israel had just finished a brief war with Hamas, the militant group that reigns in the Gaza Strip.

Raam and Hamas have roots in the same Islamist movement. And Raam’s main influence, Sheikh Abdullah, was convicted and jailed in the 1980s for links to a militant Islamist group.

For those in Raam and the surrounding area, his new role makes more sense in the context of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual journey since his release from prison, when he made an ideological about-face and sought to use Islamic teachings to justify a more peaceful approach.

Raam’s involvement in government is in part the result of specific circumstances – a personal decision by his leader, Mr Abbas, to seek more political clout to help Arab communities overcome entrenched gang violence and secure better rights. to housing. And this was made possible by Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, who helped to legitimize the idea of ​​Arab participation in government by seeking Raam’s support.

For Mr. Abbas’s critics within Arab society, it was a problematic and transactional act that grants power and legitimacy to hard-right allies in the government in exchange for only small concessions to the Arabs.

But it gave hope to Rabbi Melchior and one of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual successors, Sheikh Raed Bader, who fight to restore momentum to a formal peace process that ran out of steam in 2014. For them, Mr. Abbas’ political maneuver was the natural extension of a long-term, religion-based peacebuilding project initiated by Sheikh Abdullah.

“My sheikh went through several stages in his life,” said Sheikh Raed, citing Sheikh Abdullah’s break with activism after his release from prison in the 1980s.

“All the religious dialogue,” said Sheikh Raed, “started from this point. “

Born in 1948 in an Arab city of what has become Israel, Sheikh Abdullah briefly flirted with communism in his youth before turning more seriously to Islam.

In the 1970s, he founded the Islamic Movement, an Israel-based group that aimed to encourage the Muslim minority to deepen their faith and ultimately create a society ruled by Islamic law. The group also had a militant wing which carried out arson attacks on Israeli property.

But in the 1980s, he surprised his supporters by pushing for better relations between Arabs and Israelis, both in Israel and in the occupied territories.

In the 1990s, Sheikh Abdullah participated in behind-the-scenes negotiations between Hamas and Israel, and later gave his blessing to the participation of the political wing of the Islamic Movement, later known as Raam, in the Israeli parliamentary elections. This caused a split in the movement, with some members forming a dissident group now banned who rejected participation in the Israeli parliamentary process.

But Sheikh Abdullah continued on the path of moderation, writing a book that rejected any religious justification for suicide bombings. He also began working on several peacebuilding projects with Rabbi Melchior, then Deputy Foreign Minister in the Israeli government.

Born in Denmark in 1954, Rabbi Melchior was, at first glance, an unlikely partner for Sheikh Abdullah. Rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and a member of the Israeli security cabinet, he was a longtime Zionist who believed that the return of the Jews to Israel was the fulfillment of a divine plan.

But when they sat down together, the couple basically saw each other as two religious equals united by a shared respect for each other’s theology, Rabbi Melchior said. And for the rabbi, it gave them the opportunity to engage more constructively than secular Israeli and Palestinian politicians who have an implicit power imbalance.

“A staunch Islamist who was one of the great decision-makers in the Islamic world,” said Rabbi Melchior. “And this staunch Zionist, who has been in the Israeli cabinet for years, and whose children and grandchildren are officers in these elite units of the Israel Defense Forces. How can we be so close? How do we end each other’s sentences?

According to Rabbi Melchior, it was because they looked each other in the eye and thought, “We are more and more on the same side.

At the height of the second great Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against the Israeli occupation in 2002, the two helped organize a major meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, bringing together rabbis, imams and Christian clerics. It resulted in a joint declaration by representatives of the three religions denouncing the murder in the name of God and committing to a common quest for peace.

Along with several colleagues, including Sheikh Raed, the two also set up a network of religious imams and rabbis in Israel to help ease times of tension. Among many little-known projects, the network made back-channel efforts in 2008 to avoid community violence in the city of Acre, in northern Israel.

In 2014, they coordinated to avoid religious violence in mixed Arab-Jewish towns when the day of Jewish atonement, Yom Kippur, fell on the same day as the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, and attempted to alleviate conflict during a Low level intifada next year.

Mr. Abbas got involved in the initiatives and then developed a close relationship with Rabbi Melchior, speaking to him several times a month.

For the rabbi, these religion-based peace initiatives offered a way to move away from secular diplomatic efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, which he said failed in part because they did not sufficiently include religious elements. of the two populations.

“The traditional and religious population felt that peace was part of the uprooting of what they felt to be their sense of belonging, of their DNA, of their identity, of their story,” said Rabbi Melchior.

After the death of Sheikh Abdallah, Sheikh Raed took up his torch. He worked with Rabbi Melchior to defuse another crisis in 2017, when installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem almost sparked another uprising.

In 2020, Sheikh Raed published a lengthy religious tract that provided a theological rationale for Raam’s membership in the Israeli government. Several months later, Mr. Abbas joined the current government coalition.

During the coalition negotiations, Mr. Abbas gave a televised speech in Hebrew, addressed widely to Israeli Jews, in which he called for coexistence and introduced himself as a citizen of Israel. Analysts later said this played a central role in positioning him as an acceptable partner for Jewish-led parties. The speech was his own, but he spoke with Rabbi Melchior beforehand about its contents, the two said.

For some Palestinian citizens of Israel, Mr. Abbas is a clearance sale for helping to put right-wing Jewish politicians to power in exchange for what critics perceive as symbolic victories.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the left-wing Hadash party, said Abbas’ approach was transactional, positioning Palestinian citizens of Israel as servants and subjects rather than true citizens with collective rights.

“I don’t want to work as a politician under Jewish supremacy,” said Odeh, whose party includes a mix of Arabs and Jews. “I am fighting for deep equality at both civil and national level between the two peoples. “

But for advocates like Sheikh Raed and Rabbi Melchior, Mr. Abbas’ decision was a hopeful byproduct of a long process of religious peacebuilding that seeks to put Palestinians and Israelis on a low footing. equality, and that political leaders would do well to amplify.

“If the religious element is not inside the peace camp and is not fully included, it just won’t happen,” Rabbi Melchior said. “For my part, I do not want to exclude the laity – neither from our society nor from peacemaking,” he added. “I just want to extend this feeling of peace.”

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