Ancient ideas of land and faith must underpin a new Middle East peace initiative

Having reported on the conflict for years, James Rodgers explains why energy and ambition alone will not be enough to secure peace.

It was a day of extreme heat, and extreme emotion. The prisoners were due to be released at Tarqumia, a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.

It was August. The Middle Eastern summer was at its hottest. There was no shade. Waiting families did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had been strengthened by learning to endure absence and separation. Perhaps hope and expectation alone sustained them that afternoon. Their excitement seemed to increase the air temperature even further.

The newly-freed prisoners were Palestinians who had been held in Israeli jails, mostly for carrying out, or planning, attacks on Israeli targets. A similar release is planned now, as part of moves by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was just such a restart, in this case prompted by the launch of the "Roadmap" for Middle East peace, which had led to the prisoner release I witnessed then, in 2003.

Such new beginnings seem often to be prompted by the ambition of politicians or diplomats. In this case, Kerry, new in his post, is taking on one of the toughest diplomatic challenges of the age. In his announcement last week, he talked of £a significant and welcome step forward", which would see delegations coming to "Washington to begin initial talks within the next week or so" – in other words, very soon now.

Without the dedication and energy which Kerry has shown, this stage might not even have been reached. It is his enthusiasm which is the catalyst. The need to end the conflict is nothing new. There seems to be a growing opinion that it may soon be impossible to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The European Union’s view, published last December, is typical. Foreign Ministers decided then that continued settlement expansion, "would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardis­ing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusa­lem as the future capital of two states."

If attempts to take on the challenge are not prompted by ministerial ambition, they are often prompted by more than circumstances inside Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Roadmap of 2003 came in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq; the Madrid talks of 1991 followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The disputes remain the same: borders; refugees (those who fled the 1948 war, which brought Israel into being, and their descendants); the status of Jerusalem. Any solution to these fundamental issues will require compromise, or acceptance of loss or injustice. So far, this has proved impossible.

As the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004, I was the only international journalist then based in the territory. I watched the conflict unfold from a rare viewpoint. Reporting the news gave me an understanding of daily reality, and the longer I did it, the more I sought to understand the deeper, enduring, causes of enmity between Israeli and Palestinian.

Taking a week or so away from news reporting, I made a radio documentary about the conflict and ideas of home.

It seemed that the more you went beyond the questions designed to get a soundbite for that day’s bulletins, the more ideas of historical destiny, reinforced by religious faith, came to the surface.

I was reminded of this recently when watching a BBC Television documentary, Israel: Facing the Future.

"Both sides claim to have rights on this land, and they claim that they are the only ones who have the rights on this land, and no side can in any way forego its rights on every inch of territory because it’s holy land," Ephraim Halevy, a former Director of Mossad, told the reporter, John Ware.

This is the extremely inconvenient truth which conventional diplomacy, and the journalism which reports it, too often underplays. Taking it into account is no guarantee of a successful peace process. Ignoring it seems to guarantee failure. Energy and ambition alone are not sufficient. This new diplomatic initiative will need to understand ancient ideas of land and faith if it is to succeed.

James Rodgers is the author of the newly-published No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (Abramis) and of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). From 2002-2004, he was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. He lectures in Journalism at City University London. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.