Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Conservatism / Progressivism > Tradition as a Vehicle for Peace in the Middle East

Tradition as a Vehicle for Peace in the Middle East

Peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians have traditionally been framed in the liberal spirit, expecting both sides to transcend their national and traditional affiliations for the sake of peace. These attempts have met with abysmal failure. It is time perhaps to try something new: a "traditional" or "conservative" peace. Integrating religious leadership in the peace process would be a good place to begin.

Sivan 5780; June 2020

In 2006, the government of Spain hosted a series of events celebrating fifteen years since the Madrid Conference—the 1991 international initiative to advance peace talks between Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab states. As primary celebrants of the event, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations enjoyed a special reception, hosted by the King of Spain. At the cocktail party, Jewish and Palestinian representatives alike freely partook of the pork-filled hors d’oeuvre on offer, shared traditional restrictions forbidding these notwithstanding. Indeed, the entire peace process, represented at that event by Yossi Sarid and Yasser Abed Rabu, proceeded under the banner of secularism and liberalism. These, it was believed, would pave the way to true peace. Symbolism aside, the non-kosher snack anecdote points to a deeper flaw in attempts to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, I believe, to the very reason these have consistently failed.

It is commonly assumed that progressive values, chiefly Western liberalism, should be the force animating a successful regional peace negotiation. Yet, attempt after attempt to realize this vision has met with a disillusioned end. As these lines are composed, in June of 2020, Israel and the Palestinians are in the process of evaluating the “deal of the century,” led by President Trump of the United States. Unlike previous peace plans, Trump’s has garnered the broadest support so far among Israel’s citizens, across its political spectrum. Even so, while Trump’s roadmap is indeed being considered by those previously resistant to any such plan, it will be, at best, a bumpy ride to a true peace agreement.

In this essay, I will try to identify the source of previous plans’ repeated failures and why I believe the current plan represents a better chance at overcoming the region’s unique challenges. In doing so, I will first outline two principal schools of Western political thought and how these approaches diverge in their visions of nationality and coexistence. I will then discuss how a more conservative model, which borrows strongly from Yoram Hazony’s “The Virtue of Nationalism,” can inform a Middle East peace that is anchored in both nationalism and traditionalism.


Universal Rights Vs. National Security

Since the end of the Cold War, Western diplomacy has been characterized by a tension between two inherently oppositional worldviews. One represents the vision of free and independent nation-states, each seeking to advance its interests in accordance with its own identity and traditions, while the other imagines a unified world order, rallying under universal principles and governed by a supra-national authority. Countries such as India, Japan, Israel, Norwegian, South Korea, and Switzerland belong in the first category, along with a post-Brexit Britain and the United States (more explicitly so during Trump’s tenure). Most other European states hold firmly to the universalist vision, affirming again in the Maastricht Treaty their commitment to “continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” As I will further elaborate, these approaches represent two distinct political ideologies—conservatism and liberalism, respectively.

At the heart of the liberal order is an organizing belief in the power of human intellect, rationality being man’s (only) pathway to true progress. Accordingly, the ideal political arrangement can be achieved so long as the human mind is freed of irrational sentiment. In turn, such reliance on man’s innate and natural capacity for advancement suggests an ethical framework that favors universality over nationality, prioritizes individual human rights over tribal loyalties, and focuses on the equality of all people, everywhere. In service of these values, human rights and liberties must be protected, even (or especially) at the expense of national interests or autonomy.

Positing man’s intellectual acuity and facility, the liberal tradition also believes that it is the degradation of individual people’s conditions that lead to strife, and not an inherent desire for power. Based primarily on the 17th century teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, this position argues that the path to world stability and peace is paved not with swords and pistols, but by improving living conditions for all people. One could thus paraphrase the liberal argument as follows: when all nations across the world adopt the liberal-democratic vision, all will be well and Moshiach will have arrived. Wars will end, there will be no need for political borders, and a universal law will govern all mankind. Once all recognize that the only value truly worth pursuing is the material wellbeing of each individual, there will be no reason for nations to bicker; universal principles of liberty, equality, and human right will inform all statecraft, locally and across the globe.

Free trade and movement of goods between nations is an additional organizing concept in liberal thought. Trade as a vehicle for improving living conditions across the world is a feature common to the works of Emmanuel Kant, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Rousseau, and other Enlightenment writers. This doctrine relies on several assumptions: first, that trade relations provide sufficient incentive to resolve disagreements peacefully, since armed conflict reduces profits and curtails economic activity. Secondly, that a cosmopolitan mercantile elite, meaning those who stand to gain the most from robust international trade, is to emerge as a strong transnational interest group that will advance the cause of peaceful de-escalation when issues arise. Finally, trade relations across borders facilitate better communication networks, serving to further break down tribal affiliations and the impulse to aggressively protect these unhelpful identities. Most recently, these basic building blocks—the reliability of human intellect alongside a vision of universal economic prosperity—have informed the work of Francis Fukayama, who has elegantly articulated the case for a liberal world order characterized by the pursuit of material success and universal equality.

In this liberal worldview, individual people should be politically regarded as identity-less. While each person is entitled, in the private realm, to affiliate as he or she wishes, group identity is dangerous in the political context. Liberalism is accordingly highly suspicious of any institution that draws upon such identity, be it nationality, religion, or familial ties. These particularistic institutions are to be replaced by the neutral State, which alone is properly situated to advance universal rights and international governance.

Conservatism rejects this rationalist-universalist vision, and instead assigns significant importance to collective experience and to tradition. In the conservative conception, political order cannot be justified merely by means of rational discovery. Rather, the conservative statecraft is, necessarily, particularistic in nature; it must reflect and rely upon a community’s tradition. Each nation’s political and legal institutions must exist within, and draw their legitimacy from, its own individual traditions. No single set of rules could possibly govern a world composed of myriad local beliefs and values. Conservatism thus diverges sharply from liberalism and socialism, both of which insisted on the possibility of an individual-focused and rationally developed universal order.

An important byproduct of these different approaches is the ability to consider a belief to be perfectly true without denying the legitimacy of competing ideas. In the liberal framework, truth is arrived at through the human intellect and is assumed to represent universal and permanent values. Accordingly, once such objective standards are established, all must recognize their immutable truth; there is no room for multiple valid views. However, if truth is a product of particular and communal traditions, one particular group’s truth need not impose itself on other groups. Each community can steadfastly adhere to its own truth while recognizing the legitimacy of another group’s tradition.

Conflict resolution will be handled very differently in these two models. Liberalism offers only one of two ways out of conflict: either a single truth is accepted or imposed upon everyone, or the very idea of truth as such is sacrificed and an agreement must be reached that accepts a minimalist view and preserves basic rights. Conversely, the conservative recognizes that each party to a conflict is following their truth; his own truth does not negate that of his counterparty. Obviously, the notion of multiple concurrent truths, and even a model in which each believes in the exclusivity of his truth while respecting others who remain unconvinced, is impossible in a worldview that assumes truth to be a product of human intellect.

For this reason, as Dr. Hazony explains, the conservative prefers a world order characterized by strong and autonomous nations rather than by a universalist vision in which all nations unite under a single set of principles. A nation that is free to conduct its affairs consistent with its own ancient traditions is far less likely to be a belligerent neighbor. Political stability will prevail when each group is free to preserve its distinct way of life. Good fences make for good neighbors. Fealty to tradition creates strong social bonds, within families, communities, tribes, and nations. Political life must be organized around freedom to remain faithful to these institutions and to the commitment they form. In turn, these facilitate cooperation, mutual growth and development, alongside voluntary submission to the rule of law.

While the conservative sees in nationality the very source of freedom and prosperity, the liberal views it as a grave threat to the desired world order. Liberalism worries that any group identity has the potential to lead to unnecessary conflict, nationalism being the worst of these affiliations. While the conservative maintains that liberalism is an imperialist vision aimed at emptying the world of its many distinct cultures (and therefore doomed to fail), the liberal fails to understand the very purpose of conflict; why can we not simply impose a rational world order that maximizes each individual’s economic outcomes?

In summary, liberalism’s vision of peace is one of uniformity, while the conservative believes in unity, realized though the mutual respect of groups that are committed to their distinct traditions. The Israeli context expresses these differences perfectly.


Conservative Peace and Liberal Peace

Throughout the decades of peace talks, Israel has insisted, as a threshold condition, that its existence as the national homeland of the Jewish people must be recognized. Some have questioned the importance of what appears to be a mere formality: Why sacrifice the prospect of peace in exchange for an ostensibly notional statement? In the light of the analysis above, I would like to outline how an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement might take shape, and thereby explain the importance of said recognition that Israel is the Jewish national home.

Left-leaning politicians and individuals see the entire dispute between Jew and Arab over the land as unnecessary. The conflict itself is an unfortunate byproduct of the nationalist aspirations created by ideological rivals. To the liberal, all this is completely anti-rational. Borders and nations are unnecessary in the first place, and peace in the Middle East should therefore look must the same as it does in Europe, where borders are symbolic at best. Likewise, Jews and Arabs should rise above their religious, ethnic, and cultural differences so they can pursue a mutually beneficial humanistic vision, living side by side in peace.

Liberal peace presupposes a rationalist universalism, insisting on the primacy of individual liberties. Local and group affiliations are harmful. Thus, architects of liberal-oriented peace maintain that improving the individual’s material conditions will bring about stability and peace. They believe that if they can only succeed in identifying a rational middle ground between the two parties, the conflict will dissipate of its own accord. Shimon Peres articulated this fundamental mindset in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize:

The sources of material wealth and political power have changed. No longer are they determined by the size of territory obtained by war. Today they are a consequence of intellectual potential, obtained principally by education. […] Past distinctions between West and East, North and South, have lost their importance in the face of a new distinction: between those who move ahead in pace with the new opportunities and those who lag behind. […] Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival. […] A Middle East in which men, goods and services can move freely without the need for customs clearance and police licenses. […] A Middle East in which every believer will be free to pray in his own language. […] A Middle East in which nations strive for economic equality and encourage cultural pluralism.

Implicit in these comments is the suggestion that Israel must forgo its unique particularism. It should become, to whatever degree possible, a neutral state—a state of global citizens. Its Jewish character should be confined to the fact that its Jewish citizen are free to publicly profess and practice their religion. Moreover, Judaism plays no part in justifying the Jewish nation’s core claim to the land. The State’s democratic identity ultimately supersedes its Jewishness, both conceptually and practically.

On the Right, the particularistic claim of the nation-state is part and parcel of its right to exist. In the case of Israel, its claim to the Land is rooted in ancient traditions of connection between the Land of Israel and the Jewish nation. First and foremost, the State must stay true to its identity as a Jewish state. Its choice to be a democratic country is secondary to preserving its religion, culture, and traditional values. Conservatives will weigh all questions of state in light of the country’s Jewish character. The very purpose of the State is to afford its myriad constituent institutions—community, family, religious, political, cultural—full freedom to actualize their Jewishness.

Conservative thought sees in the Liberal vision a threat to both groups, Jews and Arabs alike—and therefore dooms it to inevitable failure. Stable peace is only possible when each nation can independently and fully express its particularism with dignity. So long as the Arabs refuse to recognize the Jewish state or accept its existence as the Jewish national homeland, there is no hope for peace.


The Failure of Liberal Peace

In recent decades, liberal theories in political science, economics, and jurisprudence successfully pushed aside competing views of statehood, becoming the de facto framework for political discussion. Among today’s American and European political and intellectual elite, these theories are widely accepted. However, the Israeli reality demonstrates how a liberal paradigm leads time and again to failed peacemaking efforts. Arabs, like the Jews, will not simply sacrifice their group affiliation in service of material comfort. Living in refugee camps while keeping alive the vision of national dignity, they reject the secular-liberal call to forgo their nationalist aspirations. The Arab communities are conservative. They are faithful, first and foremost, to their families, their nation, and their traditions. They have no interest in “rising above” their distinct group identity to build a new Middle East, as the liberal vision would have it.

Such is the reason for Abbas’s repeated assertion that “we will never recognize a Jewish state.” Why does our “moderate” partner resolutely (and seemingly unreasonably) refuse this pro-forma declaration—an issue that does not seem to be an obvious showstopper? On the contrary, compliance with this condition would put the Arabs in a favorable negotiating position as good faith participants, without giving up anything of significance. Simply put, it seems the Arabs refuse to budge on this issue because doing so would compromise the entire Palestinian narrative. They have argued for decades that the land belongs to them and the Jewish state is nothing but a colonialist project aimed at destroying their nation. Abbas, along with the entire Palestinian Authority’s leadership, are fully committed to the central Palestinian ethos, which rejects the existence of a Jewish group possessing a valid claim to its homeland. This refusal is no longer about maintaining negotiations over the Right of Return, which by now they likely recognize will never happen. Rather, they are fighting for their very identity. To them, the Jews are a religious group, not a people or a nation.

Abbas repeatedly asserts that the State of Israel is, from its very founding, a “colonial project that has no connection to the Jews.” For Abbas, the dispute is not over land or resource allocation; it is about national and communal pride.  These principles were codified in Article 20 of the Palestinian National Charter: “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”

Our Arab neighbors, just as do most Jews in Israel, understand their claim to the land to be rooted in communal tradition. They are not seeking a pluralist and multi-cultural Middle East, but rather an acknowledgment that the land belongs to them. That being the case, any agreement that can resolve the conflict must be based upon a mutual recognition of the other’s claims, rather than elimination of claims or denial of their legitimacy. Peace therefore cannot be truly pursued so long as the Palestinians insist their own identity is contingent on their refusal to recognize the Jewish claim.

Good neighborly relations, alongside freedom and prosperity, are only possible when each group feels it has room for full expression of its traditions. Once all agree that the Jewish people has strong historical ties to the Land it will become impossible to blame the Palestinian situation on the Jews. Not a single member of the latter group is a conqueror or colonialist. Notwithstanding their attempts to convince the world otherwise, the simple reason for the Palestinian condition is the fact that they lost every war they fought against Israel. If the Arabs would recognize this, they could begin to effectively direct resources towards establishing an entity that would give expression to their own connection to the land.

Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish claim to the Land does not therefore point to a lack of self-confidence, as some Israelis (and others) argue, but is rather an inherent precondition for any sort of stability. Only when the parties recognize their mutual rights to a state as distinct nations, not pursuant to a universalist vision that dilutes national identity in favor of economic prosperity, will it be possible to negotiate the specific terms of an agreement. Constructive negotiation, let alone actually reaching a peace agreement, is contingent on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and acknowledging the Jewish nation’s historic connection to the Land. So long as this condition is not met, even Trump’s “Deal of the Century” will not address the core of the conflict and is hence unlikely to succeed.


Towards a Conservative Peace

Rejecting the respective traditions of the two groups, as illustrated in the cocktail party anecdote above, has created an enormous barrier to sustainable peace. Secular representatives predicated the negotiations on the erasure of difference and claims of uniqueness; but rather than promote peace, this approach guaranteed failure. Such efforts ultimately deny each group’s right to exist, weakening rather than strengthening the cause of peace.

Considering a peace process anchored in the parties’ different traditions would represent a new approach to solving the conflict. To achieve this, it will be crucial to incorporate discussion of these traditional identities and to include religious leaders from both sides in the peace talks.

Religious identity and commitment as the foundational principle in a peace agreement has historical and traditional precedent. Let us consider one of the earliest peace treaties we know of: the agreement between Yaakov and Lavan, as presented in Genesis (Chap. 31). The two did not simply agree to set aside their respective truths in pursuit of a new Middle East. Instead, they agreed to respect each other’s truth, and, recognizing that mutual destruction was not in either’s interest, they established a clear border that neither would violate. After they settled on their agreement, specifically their religious affiliations are invoked as the source of ultimate accountability. Yaakov, although obviously rejecting Lavan’s deity, understands that if he is to come to any settlement with the latter, he will have to accept the religious reality of his counterparty. He therefore notes: “May the God of Abraham and the God of Nachor adjudicate between us” (Gen. 31:53).

To date, those pursuing regional peace have ignored the nations’ religious identities, out of concern that focusing on these would sharpen the conflict. A conscious effort was made to underplay these as much as possible, out of a belief that peace can be realized only by weakening particularistic impulses. Moreover, the liberal peacemakers maintained that the pathway to a settlement would be rooted in a rational desire for shared economic prosperity and that introducing metaphysical questions of competing belief systems into the equation would result in an irreconcilable zero sum game.

For all these reasons, religious leadership has rarely taken any meaningful part in shaping the peace process. Religious leaders were not included in the negotiations, nor was their worldview considered in the proceedings. Given the overall liberal ethos of the peace negotiations, it is hardly surprising that the religious establishment expressed reservations about possible negative consequences inherent to a process that relies on a weakening of religious identity. One such example of the religious leadership’s ambivalence towards peacemaking can be seen in a statement issued by the Agudas Yisrael party at the time of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty:

With all due respect and support for political agreements that will save lives, we should not refrain from expressing concern for the spiritual danger of peace agreements, which are likely to cause mingling of Jewish and Arab culture and—God forbid—to intermarriage.

Such suspicion, which certainly has merit, distanced the religious constituency and its leadership from involvement in the peacemaking efforts. However, as we presented above, a conservative agreement would be anchored specifically within a recognition of the religious traditions and distinct cultures of each group and a commitment to preserve their integrity.

It is wrong to suppose, as is commonly asserted, that diplomatic efforts cannot be conducted in the religious and traditional spheres because these are inflexible and absolute. On the contrary, religious leaders are open to compromise and tend generally towards pragmatism. R’ Ovadia Yosef’s famous views about the peace process—views that are far from ubiquitous in religious circles—demonstrate this perfectly:

If the military and political leadership determine that there is risk to life, that if land is not given back there is imminent threat of war with Arab neighbors, and that if these areas are returned, the danger is pushed off and there is a possibility of peace, it appears that it is permissible according to all views to give back land.

R’ Ovadia reiterated this position on several occasions, stipulating that the ruling applies only when security and army authorities agree that particular area of law can only be held onto at great risk to human life.

The ideological underpinning of R’ Ovadia’s willingness to support vacating land was completely different from the basis for the territorial concessions advocated by the Israeli Left. R’ Ovadia was not abandoning his truth or letting go of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel. Rather, in affirming our claim to the land, and acknowledging the pain of vacating any part of it, he asserted that the Jewish value to preserve human life supersedes maintaining control of the land. Similarly, when R’ Shach and R’ Elyashiv discussed the same issues, they likewise raised practical considerations of whether and at what cost it would be possible to hold on to the land. It is entirely within the spirit of traditional thought to seek compromise in cases of conflict that cannot be resolved.

These rulings were not accepted by all, and certainly not by the Rabbinic leadership of (the religious-Zionist) Gush Emunim. Perhaps their assessment of the security situation was different; perhaps they believed abandoning certain areas would in fact lead to greater loss of life. In some cases this was indeed the outcome. It is also possible, however, that these leaders disagreed because their community is somehow less conservative. Many in the Gush Emunim camp see the formation of a Jewish state and settlement in the Land of Israel as the beginning of the Redemption. Settling the land and clinging to every inch of it is indeed a deep religious and ideological principle. Even a peace process anchored in conservative values would likely not be endorsed by followers of the Gush Emunim camp.

In the light of the above analysis, I would argue that the correct path to peace with our Arab neighbors must be led by the conservative and traditional leaders on both sides. Such peace negotiations will recognize the religious and traditional importance of the land to both peoples, even while each side clings to its own truth. The conceptual underpinning of this agreement will directly address the theological and traditional challenges attendant to any sort of compromise. As our forefather Yaakov stated, “May the God of Avraham and the God of Nachor adjudicate between us.” Each side must come to the negotiation table with complete commitment to its religious and traditions. A shared commitment by both parties—to fulfill their respective religious obligation—will ultimately guide them to find a solution that enables each to do so while living side by side without fear.


In the picture: a havdalah service held in honor of Menachem Begin; credit: Moshe Milner, National Photography Archive.

One thought on “Tradition as a Vehicle for Peace in the Middle East

  • “For this reason, as Dr. Hazony explains, the conservative prefers a world order characterized by strong and autonomous nations rather than by a universalist vision in which all nations unite under a single set of principles. A nation that is free to conduct its affairs consistent with its own ancient traditions is far less likely to be a belligerent neighbor. ”

    This is obviously not true. The European strong nationalism let to many bloody conflict and two world wars. In Europe, under liberalism, there has has been no wars since 1945.

    “Simply put, it seems the Arabs refuse to budge on this issue because doing so would compromise the entire Palestinian narrative.”

    This narrative is sourced in their religion and nationalism. By promoting these conservative factors you are encouraging even more belligerence. Only a lessening of their religiously based nationalism will bring them to the table.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email