Carlo Strenger
The Guardian
April 15, 2010 - 12:00am

The press and the blogosphere keep stating that the Obama administration is considering launching its own peace initiative. The details mentioned are neither new nor surprising: Israel should live alongside a Palestinian state; the Arab parts of Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital, and there will be a land swap to compensate the Palestinians for the major settlement blocs.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has recently fleshed out some details of this proposal and has added a crucial element that I have advocated in the past: Barack Obama should come to the Knesset and present his peace proposal in person, because this, since Sadat's historic visit, has proven to be the way to the hearts of Israelis.

But any peace initiative faces one ultimate stumbling stone: the Holy Basin – the area of Jerusalem that includes the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion and a variety of Christian holy sites. Nowhere on the planet is there a piece of real estate as laden with symbolic significance and there is no piece of land that is more prone to generating insoluble conflict and interminable bloodshed. To understand the depth of this symbolism, it is important to remember that the unconscious of the Middle East is formed by scriptural myths.

Both Judaism and Islam assume that the Temple Mount (called "Mount Moriah" in the book of Genesis) was the site of one of the most problematic scenes in theology. According to the Biblical text, God requested of Abraham to take his son, Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah. Abraham did as told, but when he was about to slaughter his son, God intervened and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. There is a Muslim tradition that claims Ishmael was really the son that Abraham almost sacrificed on the Temple Mount. Paradoxically, Judaism and Islam compete with each other over which of the two sons was subjected to this traumatic ordeal.

In Christianity, the motif of filial sacrifice is no less strong. Depending on the specific theology, Jesus is either seen as God incarnate who sacrifices himself to atone for the sin of humanity, or as God's son sacrificed for the same purpose. Once again, the scene of the sacrifice is Jerusalem's old city: the Via Dolorosa follows the road of Jesus's suffering on the way to his death at the cross.

Filial sacrifice epitomises one of the most problematic aspects of the monotheistic traditions. There is supposed to be one theological truth, and it is a truth considered worth killing and dying for, to this very day. At its most extreme, the power of the myth of filial sacrifice is exemplified in the sanctification of shaheeds – those willing to sacrifice their lives to kill unbelievers – ranging from suicide bombers in the Middle East to the perpetrators of 9/11.

This terrible phenomenon is only the last incarnation of a long history of willingness to shed blood and to die for the holy city throughout the last millennium. For two centuries, Christian Crusaders killed tens of thousands in the attempt to gain control over the Holy Land. After this, historical Palestine was under Islamic rule until the Turkish empire was dismantled. But since the dawn of Islam, al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock have been the most sacred places to Islam after the Kaaba in Mecca, and Islamic sovereignty over these sites is regarded as God-given.

After the establishment of the state of Israel, the old city remained under Jordanian rule until the 1967 war, when it was conquered by Israel. The photograph of Rabbi Goren blowing the shofar (the traditional ram-horn used in Jewish new-year celebrations) at the Western Wall has been etched deeply into the consciousness of all Israelis and most diaspora Jews. Many saw this as the onset of the messianic age, and Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount is, for them, a nonnegotiable religious truth.

Sovereignty over the Holy Basin and the Temple Mount has acquired the type of mythical power that only religious dogma can generate, and there is no way in which it can be resolved within the confines of monotheistic discourse.

The only solution for the Holy Basin is, as Bill Clinton proposed in the 1990s, internationalising it, thus avoiding a "victory" of one religion over another. Obama will have to address the humanity common to believers of all faiths. He will have to urge them to break the horrible link of filial sacrifice associated with the Temple Mount and Jerusalem's old city. In doing so, he will have to receive the imprimatur of the Arab League in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Hence Obama's mission to resolve the Middle East conflict (if he indeed wants to take it on) is of an almost meta-historical magnitude. The reason Obama might be able to pull this off is that he is perceived as a truly global figure: his African father and his partly Muslim origins make him the first US president who might be trusted by the Islamic world.

But how will Israeli Jews accept the internationalisation of the Holy Basin? Obviously the messianic orthodoxy will not accept it but, according to all polls, this is a small minority. History shows that the willingness of the majority of Israelis to compromise on Jerusalem depends on the extent to which they believe that such compromise will lead to peace and lasting security for Israel. As recent polls show, 70% of Israelis continue to favour the two-state solution, but the same proportion believe that this solution is not attainable in the foreseeable future.

To change Israelis' pessimism about the possibility of peace, Obama will have to heed Brzezinski's advice: he will have to bring central figures of the Arab League to Jerusalem; they will have to address the Knesset, thus showing that they truly accept Israel's existence. This is, no doubt, a tall order. But nothing less will do if Obama wants to fulfil his strategic goal of moving to a more peaceful global order.


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