CHICAGO – Time is not on the side of peacemakers in the Middle East. Even relentless optimists are giving up. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become increasingly overshadowed and orchestrated on both sides by extreme and uncompromising religious groups that view their political mandate as holy and sacred.
This is hindering any peaceful resolution in the short run and will prove increasingly prohibitive to a political settlement in the long run. More than ever, peace is an unattainable mirage.
During the last 25 years, various competing stakeholders in the region have embraced religion as the dominant paradigm in determining their domestic policies. In many Arab countries, the fundamentalist revival is as significant as it is disconcerting. Hezbollah has emerged in Lebanon as a potent force, Iraq has been transformed from one of the Middle East’s most secular countries into a theocratic-militant state, and Hamas is now surging in Palestine and diluting the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Much of religious fundamentalism’s political strength derives from fundamentalists’ increasing share of the population. This demographic shift is occurring not only in the Muslim world, but also in Israel.
Israel has been slowly evolving from a culturally Jewish democracy into a religiously dominated one. Israel’s Haredi ultra-orthodox religious community, for example, is growing at a rate so high that it is redefining the political landscape. According to Israeli government statistics, Haredi Jews average 7.6 children per woman, almost three times the rate of the population as a whole. Of the Israeli Knesset’s 120 members, 20 (all male) are ultra-Orthodox, up from five just a couple of decades ago.
The number of ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset is projected to grow further as their constituents multiply. In the fractured political landscape typical of Israel, this would make it possible for organized religious parties to exert significant power over the government.