Does religion contribute to making peace or generating conflict? The issue divides secular and religious thinkers and has become particularly acute with the spread of violent extremist groups claiming religious justifications for their actions. What then should be the role of religious leaders in peace negotiations? Should they have a seat at the negotiation table in international conflicts? An interesting perspective on this issue was provided by Daniel Taub, Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom and an experienced peace negotiator. Taub, who represented Israel in peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, is himself an orthodox Jew, and has written extensively not only about negotiation theory and international relations, but also about orthodox Jewish thought and practice.
According to Taub, in the early days of the negotiations the principle that religion should be kept away from the negotiations was widely accepted. “One of the few things the two sides agreed on” he notes, “was that we have to keep the religious leaders out of the negotiating room.” It was feared that that introducing combustible issues of faith and belief into the equation might turn a soluble conflict into an insoluble one. “Even if the religious participants were moderate”, Taub adds, “the concern was that this would open the door to the extremists”.
But Daniel Taub says that over the two decades he was involved in negotiations, his views began to change. “I realized that it was misleading to think about keeping issues of faith outside the room. They were already inside. We just weren’t addressing it, or even admitting it”.
In fact, as Taub suggests, some of the most intractable issues in negotiations are not related to territory or material assets but rather they are issues of identity. Frequently these are inherently connected to religious and cultural values. Some of the most difficult permanent status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for example, have proven enormously difficult to resolve for precisely this reason.
Taub makes the case that faith doesn’t have to be a source of friction. If handled sensitively, it can open resources of conciliation and understanding. Taub describes how, when serving as Ambassador in London, he learned that a Jewish fast day fell within the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, and invited Moslem and Jewish leaders to break the fast together and discuss issues of conciliation at the ambassadors’ residence. “We had a remarkable discussion, but what made it possible was the fact we were sharing something so intimate as our faith.”
The importance of addressing these issues, says Daniel Taub, is not just to resolve the issues at the negotiation table, but also to engage the constituencies whose support is necessary to implement the agreement. “One failings of our negotiations in the 1990s was that the negotiators were two steps ahead of their peoples. It turns out that you can’t be more than one step ahead and still bring them with you”. Much of the opposition to the agreements on both sides was fueled, or at least exacerbated, by religious sensibilities. Beyond the substance, these groups felt marginalized by a process that was defiantly secular. With greater sensitivity and outreach, Taub suggests, much of this defiance might have been mitigated.
Taub notes that years ago, his approach to faith and negotiation was an unusual one today however, he considers that it has become much more mainstream. “There are deep and moving channels of dialogue between religious figures on different sides of the divide, and a growing sense that peace is at root a religious value.”