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.
“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 two decades he spent involved in the negotiations, Taub felt his views begin to change. “It was misleading the 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.
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!”
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. “There are deep and moving channels of dialogue between religious figures on different sides of the divide, and a growing sense that peace is at root a religious value.”