The Road Ahead in the Middle East

During these hard times for Israeli-Palestinian relations, it is vital that positive steps be taken and international goodwill be mobilized. For a significant number of both Palestinians and Israelis, the use of force has come to represent the only conceivable option. Palestinian society can feel very little hope in the immediate term, so what else is there to lose? Yet it seems just as clear that the pursuit of extreme measures by any party will surely lead to wider and worse clashes.

Rather than resign ourselves to more years of hate and misery, it is urgent that the foundations for future peace be rebuilt before all civilized structures are swept away. The priority in everyone's minds is the present conflict; but until human well being becomes a universal priority, conflicts will continue to dominate interpersonal and international relations.

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Those who wish to contribute to reducing tensions should identify and promote starting points for peace-builders to find common ground. Political and media support ought to focus on programs that work on the ground, as reported by humanitarian and non-governmental agencies, and not on particular religious agendas. Priority should go to cooperative projects--enhancing cooperation between different faiths, between different schools within the same faith, and between religious and secular groups.

Islam as a religion of peace and human betterment is betrayed by anyone who commits atrocities in its name. It is a broad and inclusive religion whose adherents across the world presently suffer from their lack of a unified voice.

For example, issuing fatwas , or religious edicts, is legitimately undertaken by those whose high standing is acknowledged by the whole Ummah , or Muslim community. We need trustworthy and reputable bodies for issuing globally significant fatwa , with the authority to represent Muslim communities worldwide; such bodies could be based in Mecca and Najaf, representing Sunni and Shi'a centers of religious thought.

Such a step would bring to non-Muslims some of the sharpest thinking in the Islamic world, and would contribute a missing voice to debates about global values. Globalization and Islam are not incompatible, so long as Islam is recognized as a tradition that has much to contribute to world civilization, not treated as a menace to be neutralized.

The goal today must be to modernize each tradition, while remaining faithful to its roots. A total collapse of religious norms would truly be destabilizing. If it is to succeed in making the world a better place, globalization can not be predicated upon market forces alone, but needs to reinforce the stability and integration of diverse societies.

In the Middle East, clear ethical leadership is needed. But such leadership cannot achieve results in a vacuum. Global standards of behavior can only be implemented effectively if they are upheld by all. If a supposedly universal policy is seen to be applied inconsistently in order to further one nation's or culture's interests, that policy will lose credibility and be rejected as representing a double standard.

It is the responsibility of rulers and opinion leaders to insist that universal rights are implemented universally--that all, without exception, are subject to the rule of law. Only when we achieve a culture of compliance with humanitarian norms will we be able to establish the framework for securing a vibrant civil society, negotiation instead of conflict, and continuing human welfare. The developed world has an obligation to live up to the standards of the Declaration of Human Rights and other documents describing universal norms.

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One of the most important expressions of goodwill is the gift of humanitarian aid. At this time, when military conflict risks worsening in different corners of the world, western agencies in particular can support the people of a troubled area. Yet humanitarian aid must not become just another foreign policy tool. If aid is thought by the people receiving it to be manipulated for political gain, it will reduce the possibility for international relations based on any kind of trust. There should be a re-evaluation of the place of altruism and compliance with universal humanitarian norms.

The international community can offer stability and improvements in living conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians by intervening now with a peacekeeping and humanitarian presence, endorsed by the United Nations and with the support of the United States. Outside intervention may be necessary, including international commitment to specific objectives--not just to a process intended to reach those objectives--before it becomes possible to visualize a viable future in which both parties can flourish alongside each other.