What place should religion have at the negotiation table in international conflicts? This was the subject of a fascinating masterclass led by Israeli negotiator and ambassador Daniel Taub for an international group of back-channel negotiators.
Ambassador Taub, who in addition to serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom represented Israel in peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, began by describing the traditional approach to issues of faith in the Israeli Palestinian negotiations.
The negotiations were led almost entirely by westernized intellectuals from both parties. “One of the few things the two sides agreed on” noted Taub, “was that we have to keep the religious leaders out of the negotiating room.” The fear, he explained, was that introducing highly charged issues of religious faith into the equation would take a soluble conflict and make it insoluble. Even if the religious participants were moderate, Taub added, the concern was that this would open the door to the extremists.
Over the next two decades Taub was entrusted with a number of roles in the negotiations. He served as legal adviser to the Israeli delegation in its talks with the Palestinians, and also headed the Israeli side of “Culture of Peace” track of negotiations. During these years Taub felt his views on the role of faith in the negotiation room begin to change. “It was misleading to think about keeping issues of faith outside the door. They were already inside. We just weren’t addressing it, or even admitting it”.
Many of the most intractable issues in negotiations are not to do with territory or material assets, notes Taub. They are issues of identity, and often these are tied up with a religious and cultural values. Many of the most difficult permanent status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for example, are difficult for precisely this reason.
Taub suggests that it is important to recognize that religion plays a part in many issues under discussion, not only those that are traditional regarded as connected with religious faith. There is a tendency to think about religious sensibilities only when discussing Jerusalem or holy sites around the West Bank, but the impact of the faith and religious identity of the parties is much broader. On both sides of the divide, issues of nationality and peoplehood are infused with emotions which draw from religious traditions and identities. Ignoring these only makes it harder to reach understanding and agreement.
Taub also makes the point that, while it was not only religious leaders for who religion played an important role. Clearly religious leaders have an important role to play in emphasizing the importance of peace and encouraging moderation and tolerance, but the general public is also deeply impacted by religious sensibilities. Handled sensitively, faith doesn’t have to be a source of friction and dogmatism, it can open resources of conciliation and understanding. Taub described how, when serving as Ambassador in London, he learned that a Jewish fast day fell within the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, and invited Moslem and Jewish leaders to break the fast together and discuss issues of conciliation at the ambassadors’ residence. “We had a remarkable discussion, but what made it possible was the fact we were sharing something so intimate as our faith.”
The importance of addressing these issues, says Daniel Taub, is not just to resolve the issues at the negotiation table, but also to engage the constituencies whose support is necessary to implement the agreement. “One failings of our negotiations in the 1990s was that the negotiators were two steps ahead of their peoples. It turns out that you can’t be more than one step ahead and still bring them with you”. Much of the opposition to the agreements on both sides was fueled, or at least exacerbated, by religious sensibilities. Beyond the substance, these groups felt marginalized by a process that was defiantly secular. With greater sensitivity and outreach, Taub suggested, much of this defiance might have been mitigated.
Is there a role for faiths to play when they are not the religions at odds in a conflict, one of the participants asked. Taub smiled as he gave his reply. “My Palestinian counterpart and I went to Belfast to learn about the Northern Irish conflict and we met with Catholic and Protestant religious leaders. They told us that they had a hard time finding a place that was not identified as protestant or catholic… until they settled on the synagogue!”
Taub, himself an orthodox Jew, was asked whether his own religious faith had had an impact on his position with regards to issues in the negotiations. “I don’t think it pushed me in one direction or the other,” he replied, “so much as making me feel the importance of what was at stake, and the dilemmas involved, more keenly. Many issues require you to balance the demands of security with hopes for peace. Both of these are religious values so sometimes you feel the dilemmas even more deeply.”
Ambassador Taub, who has written a book about issues of faith and diplomacy and interviewed a number of religious leaders on issues of religion and public policy, ended his lecture by pointing out that what had once been a marginal viewpoint had now become much more mainstream, and that, while they often tried to avoid the public eye religious leaders, such as Imams and Rabbis, were increasingly meeting for quiet contact. “There are deep and moving channels of dialogue between religious figures on different sides of the divide.” noted Taub. “More often than not they discover that there is far more that unites and divides them And such dialogue only serves to remind us that peace itself is at root a religious value.”