The United States must inject a sense of urgency into the current initiative on an international conference to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. For, without tangible progress, the peace process could become inexorably complicated by a volatile new dimension--religion.
Small corps of fanatics have already introduced militant versions of Islam and Judaism into the conflict. Although clearly on the fringe, extremists do not emerge in a vacuum. Their radical ends often reflect a broader societal frustration or anger even if their violent means are abhorred.
Holy wars are the most destructive, ruthless and confusing of all conflicts because passion infects politics. Neither side needs to justify its ferocity in terms of human goals or rights. Traditional moral and political restraints go by the boards. Death becomes a noble duty.
The use of religion as a modern idiom of opposition in the Middle East, a trend that might have seemed preposterous a decade ago, is already being written into history books.
Iran has been transformed by an Islamic revolution. America's closest Arab ally, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. Shia fanatics bombed six strategic facilities in Kuwait and plotted a coup in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia was shaken by the Sunni extremists' seizure of Mecca's Grand Mosque. The foreign policy of the century's most popular American President was taken hostage by Lebanese Shias.
In Israel a radical Jewish underground, the first major terrorist network since the state was founded, was uncovered in 1984. Israel today is absorbed in debates about the nation's identity: Should it be a democracy or a Jewish state? The rise of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the neo-fundamentalist Tehiya, now the third-largest political party, worries many analysts.
Ancient faiths are increasingly being turned to by both Muslims and Jews for a variety of reasons, not all directly linked to the conflict. The Third World in general is witnessing a religious resurgence related to a broader search for identity, in which religion offers a context to search for answers to troubling political and social issues of the day.
In the Middle East this process emerges in the context of the peace process' general lethargy, divisive squabbling within the traditional leadership on both sides and, after almost four decades of sporadic warfare, a growing sense of despair and fear. Something new is sought by Israelis as well as Palestinians and other Arabs.
Redefining the conflict in religious terms seems almost a natural progression. As far back as 1967, many Arabs felt that their devastating defeat--including the loss of large chunks of Egypt, Jordan, Syria plus sacred Jerusalem--happened in part because Israelis were more faithful to Judaism than Arabs were to Islam. And some Israelis looked on their triumph as a signal from God that the age of messianic redemption had begun.
Today each Arab front-line state is witnessing an Islamic resurgence in varying degrees and around different flash points--and not just because of Iran's 1979 revolution. Indeed, the revival entered a second stage in 1985. The outgunned and outmanned Shias of southern Lebanon accomplished in three years what the Palestine Liberation Organization has failed to do in 20 years: Israel withdrew unilaterally from an occupied territory without a single security guarantee.
Chaotic Lebanon does not serve as an appropriate model for many reasons. But Islam was perceived to succeed where traditional forces had repeatedly failed. The Islamic revival was also no longer a Persian initiative; it was now an Arab phenomenon.
The Israeli government's discovery of the Jewish underground did not end the potential for violence. The religious Zionism that produced it is increasingly influential, for secular Zionism is widely perceived as bankrupt on viable solutions to the territorial future of the state and to the quest for a unique Israeli identity. The new fundamentalism's message of a strong and culturally integrated Israel is reassuring.
A chain of events has thus established an appealing precedent: Faith now works as an alternative or supplementary banner around which to mobilize and motivate. Fighting in the name of God also gives life a deeper sense of mission and worth.
Unfortunately, this would escalate the conflict onto a higher plane that the super-powers--one constitutionally secular, the other ideologically atheist--are ill equipped to handle. The entire vocabulary and framework for settlement would change, even if the goal remained basically nationalistic. For compromise would mean betraying God.
At this stage an outright holy war can still be prevented. Despite the new undercurrent, the major players--Syria, Jordan, the PLO and Israel--are still dominated and moved largely by secular factors. The disparate Muslim groups are unlikely to unite neatly into a monolithic force. And Israel's isolation still dictates pragmatism.
However, religion does not have to be the dominant force to play a pivotal, even an explosive, role in the conduct of conflict.
If the intensity of religious violence grows at the same pace as it has in the past decade, Israelis and Arabs may well find themselves in the 1990s involved in a conflict that would dwarf the fury and bloodshed of the past.
The proposed international conference needs to be seen in the light of this new possible alternative. Both the United States and the Soviet Union must finally pull out all stops to preempt further disintegration of a conflict that has already been allowed to go on too long--before they become irrelevant in helping decide its outcome.