Raymond J. de Souza: Peace in the Mideast is about faith, not just politics

The Abraham Accords attempt to make religion a factor of common heritage instead of division

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Recently in these pages, former prime minister Stephen Harper and Shuvaloy Majumdar praised the recent Abraham Accords as “truly transformative.” The agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, brokered by the Trump administration, prepares the ground for “historic realignments” in the region.

There is more to be said. While the diplomatic triumph of the Abraham Accords is of great geopolitical importance in a conflicted region, they also constitute a breakthrough of religious significance.

Begin with the name. They are not known by the place of negotiation — Camp David, Oslo — but by a religious reference to Abraham, the common father of Jews and Muslims, the pilgrim who went from Ur of the Chaldees (Iraq) to the promised land of Israel. Abraham, the father of Ishmael and Isaac, holds immense importance for Christians, too, honoured in sacred worship as “our father in faith.” (Oct. 9 is his liturgical feast day in the Catholic Church, for those who delight in such trivia — and who doesn’t?)

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They constitute a breakthrough of religious significance

We marked last month the 50th anniversary of the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt and a nascent pan-Arab, secular movement — an alliance against Israel to be sure, but also against Islam as a dominant force in shaping the modern Arab state. His spectacular defeat in the Six Day War was a catastrophe for secular Arab nationalism. It never recovered; meanwhile Islamist movements began to rise, both in Saudi Arabia and in Iran.

Thence began a long shift of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the ground of national identities to religion. For example, the first intifada of 1987 was a national uprising; the second intifada of 2000 was more explicitly religious, a conflict animated by Islamist ideas rather than purely national ones.

This had deleterious effects on the Palestinian strategy, which shifted from claims to a national homeland to a religious claim to the land. Because the more obvious biblical claim to the land is that of the Jews — present in the land of Israel from Abraham’s arrival to David establishing his capital in Jerusalem — this new Palestinian approach required denying Jewish claims. Indeed, for nearly 20 years it has been a feature of both Palestinian propaganda and educational curricula that the Jews were never in Jerusalem or even Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from left, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan wave from a White House balcony after signing the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Religion had become a more central part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian question. Religion was increasingly a problem.

The Abraham Accords are ambitious in this regard. They attempt to make religion a factor of common heritage instead of division. The accords recognize “that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendant of a common ancestor, Abraham.” This leads to a commitment to “foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect.”

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Forty years on from the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, that is a most remarkable statement. The desert winds have shifted direction.

The desert winds have shifted direction

While Harper and Majumdar wrote about the Emiratis, the role of Bahrain should not be overlooked. The island micro-state — population 1.7 million — is utterly dependent upon Saudi Arabia in economic and security terms. Bahrain would not have signed the Abraham Accords without Saudi approval, if not encouragement. That elevates the religious significance; if the House of Saud — Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — is willing to formally recognize Jews as brothers (cousins?) from a common ancestor, the vexed religious dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict will diminish, if not be transformed.

The implications of the Abraham Accords are wide-reaching. The Palestinian leadership realized that its stranglehold on the Arab-Israeli question — no further Arab normalization with Israel without a deal for the Palestinians — was broken by the Gulf Arabs. The Abraham Accords repeal, after several generations, the de facto?veto of Palestine over Arab-Israeli relations.

The Palestinians immediately demanded that the Arab League condemn the Abraham Accords. When the League refused to do so, Palestine protested by declining the rotating chairmanship, which it was due to hold for six months. It is an apt symbol for Palestine’s declining importance in the Arab world, and in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is likely that the Gulf Arabs — and Saudi Arabia — hope that the Abraham Accords prompt fresh thinking and less intransigence in the Palestinian leadership.

The figure of Abraham, a traveller from (today’s) Arab world to (today’s) Israel, ought to be a figure of unity. He was buried by both his first and second sons, Ishmael and Isaac together, perhaps reconciling after an estrangement. Abraham’s memory thus remains a cause for hope.

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