Israel and Palestine: Challenges to Coexistence

Wednesday, October 20, 2021
REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

Director, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and Conflict Resolution and James H. Laue professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution and James H. Laue professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and Zaha Hassan, fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discuss human rights issues and approaches to peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine. Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

COOK: Well, thank you very much. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa studies here at CFR.

As a reminder, the webinar is on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Now on to the business of the morning. We’re delighted to have Marc Gopin and Zaha Hassan with us. We shared their bios with you, but I’ll just give you a few highlights before we begin.

Marc Gopin is the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, and the James H. Laue Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He’s written a ton. He’s done a lot. He has six books. And he has a Ph.D. in ethics from Brandeis University, and was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University, which means I’m going to have to behave extra nice during this.

Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously, Zaha was the coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine’s bid for U.N. membership, and was a member of the Palestinian delegation to Quartet-sponsored exploratory talks—that’s my New York accent—Quartet-sponsored exploratory talks between 2011 and 2012.

Welcome to you both, Marc and Zaha. I have been really looking forward to this conversation.

Let me start with you, Zaha. The two of us participated in a Foreign Affairs-sponsored event, so to speak, in which the magazine posed the following statement to a group of experts asking them whether they strongly disagreed, disagreed, were neutral, agreed, or strongly agreed. And here’s the statement: “The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer viable.” Now, you wrote you strongly agreed with a confidence level of ten. I also strongly agreed, but with a confidence level of eight. When I was thinking about that, I was wondering what the difference was between eight and ten and why I said eight rather than ten. But nevertheless, we’re basically in the same place on that.

But I just want to share with the group a little bit of what you wrote along with your number strongly agreeing with the proposition that the two-state solution is no longer viable. OK, here we go. Hold on, everybody: “There is no political constituency in Israel to support either meaningful Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, or enfranchisement in the state of Israel. Most Israelis are fine with the continuation of the status quo or formal annexation of the occupied territories. Israel’s Jewishness is valued more than democratic governance and equal rights. U.S. policy, which has operated to guarantee that Israel would be shielded from the consequences of its actions that violate international law, has facilitated the current sense of impunity among Israeli officials. There is no sign that U.S. policy will change appreciably in the next four years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has now morphed into a struggle for freedom and equal rights for all living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”

Now, here’s my question: If Israelis value Israel’s Jewishness more than democratic governance and equal rights, and Palestinians question or reject the Jewish connection to the land, how does the struggle for freedom and equal rights for all living between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River play out? How do we get to what everybody thinks would be coexistence, whether it’s—I agree with you. I think that there’s no two-state solution. But whether you conceive of a two-state solution or not, or a one-state reality, how do we get to that point of coexistence if Israelis believe that Jewishness is more important than democracy and Palestinians don’t even necessarily recognize the Jewish connection to the land? So how does this happen?

HASSAN: Yeah. I mean, I would  question that premise that Palestinians don’t accept Jewish—the Jewish connection to the land. I don’t think that’s accurate. I think what they object to is their displacement and their dispossession on the land, or that their rights are somehow subservient to Jewish rights to the land.

And so I—if you think about Palestinian support over time for a two-state solution, you see that that support has always been a bit different than the conceptualization of what Israeli support for a two-state solution has been. There has never been, really, a meeting of the minds on what exactly that means.

For Palestinians, a two-state solution meant a sovereign Palestinian state, but that didn’t negate the Palestinian citizens’ rights inside of Israel to equality nor did it negate the refugees’ right to choose to return to what became the state of Israel and to reparations for their refugee-hood. That’s what a two-state solution means to Palestinians.

To Israelis, a two-state solution was a way to maintain Israel as a Jewish-majority state and to prevent the overtaking of Israel as a binational state. And that was viewed as somehow making Israel less secure. If there was a binational state, it would defeat the whole purpose of the creation of the state of Israel. And so that meant that refugees would not be able to return. It meant that Palestinian citizens couldn’t enjoy equality because there was always going to have to be an artificial way to maintain a Jewish majority so the Palestinian citizens of Israel could not overtake their Jewish neighbors in terms of the demographic makeup of Israel.

And so the idea that there was ever a two-state solution on the table that both sides could agree to I don’t think was ever there. And so now what we’re left with is this idea that, why not—why not one state where Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians can live together, can share the entirety of the land, and do so with equal rights and equal dignity? Today, what we see is we have equal numbers of Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as Jews, and—but all of them are living under the jurisdiction of Israel, whether they’ve living under occupation or they’re living as citizens of Israel, or whether they’re living in East Jerusalem in some kind of  status that is—

COOK: Weird administrative status.

HASSAN: (Laughs.) Yeah, some status in between.

So the reality is we have one state. And the question then becomes, what kind of state should it be? Should it be one state where this domination of Palestinians continues and the repression continues, where Palestinian dispossession/displacement/evictions continue, or should it be a place where people can live together under protection of law? And I don’t know why we think that—(laughs)—this can’t be the case in Israel just like it’s the case in the United States, where you have a pluralistic society that enjoys  same equality before the law.

Of course, it looks farfetched today because there’s been so much done in the last  twenty-plus years to embolden the Israeli right and to empower it and to make it think that there isn’t going to be any repercussions for their actions on the ground—the settlement expansion, the displacement of Palestinians. So, of course, that segment of the Israeli electorate feels empowered, feels emboldened, and doesn’t want to compromise. Why should it?

But that can change if over time you see a U.S. policy that changes, if the international community starts to hold Israel to account for its action, over time you will start to see a shift in the way Israelis think about themselves, and think about their country, and what they want for their country. I think international opprobrium does matter to Israel. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t see such a push towards Arab normalization and Muslim normalization of Israel. That’s very important to Israel. And if it’s allowed to think that this state of domination of Palestinian lives is normal, then it’s going to continue.

And so that’s why I am not pessimistic that things can change; I am optimistic that things can change. I have had friends—(laughs)—who told me that they thought Apartheid-era South Africa would never change absent violent confrontation, and then one day it ended. And I think, similarly, things can change and attitudes can change in Israel-Palestine.

But I don’t think   it’s something endemic to Palestinians that they could never conceive of themselves living with Israelis. Palestinians work in Israel. Palestinians are citizens of Israel. There’s a lot of experience with living with Israeli Jews in daily life, interacting in daily life. It’s not like they don’t have experience with that. What they don’t want the experience of is one of domination, and so that’s what needs to change.

COOK: As with so much when it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the end is easier to conceive than how to actually get there.

I have a follow up, but let me  get to Marc. Marc, ever since I was a 23-year-old research associate and sat outside the office of a guy named Douglas Johnston, who I think you know, when he was the executive vice president of a think tank called the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I’ve been hearing that religion is the missing component of peacemaking in statecraft. You’ve been deeply involved in these efforts for many years, but for all the talk about religion and coexistence—and I don’t mean the kind of day-to-day interaction that Zaha was just talking about. Anybody who’s been to Israel and Palestine understands that at that kind of daily interaction level Israelis and Palestinians interact because they have to. There’s no way to actually separate from each other. But it’s—for all of the work that’s been put into the idea of religion as a component of peacemaking and statecraft, there hasn’t been much headway toward resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on this score. Palestinians are no closer to a state than they’ve been before. In fact, one can make the argument that they’re further away from their own state. Israel’s occupation and annexation of territory continues. Politically, neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian leadership are making the moves—are capable to make the moves required for peace even if they wanted to because of the configuration of their domestic politics.

So why should we expect religion and whatever commonalities there may be between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—why do we expect that to fill the gap? And why do we expect that politics won’t undo that, as politics is often the problem that complicates things? So convince me that this is more than just talk shop.

GOPIN: Right. So these are excellent, excellent points. And I agree with so much of what Zaha said in her analysis and appreciate your thoughts.

And here’s the thing, there are constructs here that we have to look at from a scientific point of view. From a scientific point of view, you have to look broadly and historically as well. And that is that in history there were times when it was inconceivable to think of French-German reconciliation. It was inconceivable to think of the end of a thousand-year war. It was inconceivable for Protestants and Catholics to coexist. And over time, in fact, the whole—the very secular notion of separation of church and state evolved out of religious people who developed that notion, and then it became a thing. Then it became a reality. In other words, right now—in the last forty, fifty years—we have been working with almost no funds whatsoever on stopping violence between Israelis and Palestinians behind the scenes with religious advisors and influencers on government on both sides.

In that process of the work that’s the—the clear works of imams and rabbis that have stopped various forms of violence, and are also building more education on all sides for human rights and religion as something that can coexist. There has been a steady process of very conservative Muslim and Jewish rabbis—Muslims imams and Jewish rabbis who are more and more in consensus on human rights and on women’s rights than ever before as a unit. And there is the work of Rabbi Melchior and Rabbi Danny Roth, and before him the more radical work that I did with Rabbi Froman at the time in order to subvert the processes of violence. The fact is that we don’t know scientifically what it would be like if we had the same income for religious coexistence that we have for violent confrontation. There’s never been an experiment in putting together the amount of resources for diplomacy, millions and millions of dollars, that would go into religious coexistence and beef up a process that was not only rabbis and imams, not only women on all sides, but something that would go deep into messaging the entire civilization.

Because Judaism and Christianity and Islam are instrumentalized by politicians, and violently instrumentalized, around the world. This is a method of control and of power, because there’s a vacuum of diplomacy considering the assets that could be in—could be for the processes of peacebuilding if diplomacy saw religious leadership and religious masses as a potential ally in the processes of building equality and coexistence.

So there are a number of rabbis and imams that get this and already are working tirelessly on this, but they’re completely unfunded. And, honestly, the progressives in Israel and Palestine consider those folks to be a threat. They assume that religion means less women’s rights, for example. They assume it means less secular rights. However, this is a process of negotiation on both sides that needs to take place in order to create a common constituency of religious identity and human rights that would then move towards aneither one-state; or confederation; or a move towards majority-Palestinian in one part, majority-Jewish in the other, with equal rights in both.

We could do that, but right now religion is mostly purely instrumentalized for violence. It’s purely instrumentalized for resistance. You can call it violence. You can call it terrorism. You can call it—call it fascism. Whatever names you want to call the instrumentalization of religion, it’s horrific around the world but it’s because it’s well-funded. And the peacebuilding is completely zero-funded by comparison. Afghanistan: a trillion dollars for war, zero dollars for building Islam and peacebuilding, and we lost it. Some of us tried very hard in Afghanistan. Again, it was a pittance.

So, from a scientific point of view, you really can’t judge it unless you look at the relative investments in both efforts.

COOK: I do want to get—thank you, Marc. I do want to get to questions from participants in the webinar, but I do want to follow up because, Marc, you raised an issue that I think is important to explore a bit with both you and Zaha. There seems to be—let’s take at face value the desire among some rabbis and some imams and others for peaceful coexistence, but there seems to be two very significant problems here.

The first is—Marc, you referred to it—extremism, and you do have extremism on both sides in the name of religion. Hamas does not—sees all of Israel and Palestine as Muslim lands, and thus the illegitimacy of Israel and Jewish claims to those lands. What do these imams who are interacting with these other—how do they overcome that? I recognize that there’s a money problem, but money doesn’t solve everything. These are ideas. These are powerful ideas. And then—so that’s the question, is what do you do about something like Hamas?

Or, Marc, you mentioned in an email to me that you’ve worked with settler rabbis. How do rabbis, how do they overcome the powerful ideas? These are maximalists. These are Jewish supremacists in the West Bank who, sure, they may say, hmm, we can have Palestinians in our midst, but it’s sort of a reversed dhimmitude. Sure, they can have some rights, but we control this land because this is Jewish patrimony.

How do we overcome both of those things in order to get to a place of peaceful coexistence? It seems to me this is extremely, extremely difficult to do, given the political power of actually both.

GOPIN: So just as Christian democracy emerged in Europe and the Christian democratic parties became the locus for a different hermeneutic, a different interpretation of Christianity that came to dominate; and just as Indonesians have allowed for Islamic democracy parties to be the largest parties in the country that now dominate; so, too, we are working very hard on Islamic interpretations and Jewish interpretations that allow for coexistence and human rights and equality. And in fact, I’ve spoken to—I mean, the settler rabbi that I worked with—only one, Rabbi Froman—Rabbi Froman was at the forefront of reaching out to Hamas and working with Sheikh Yassin at a time when it was absolutely verboten and impossible for Israelis to do so. He tried desperately to prevent the assassination, ultimately, of Sheikh Yassin, not because he agreed with their methods but because he was absolutely convinced that on a religious and human level it was possible to achieve a sharing of values that would end the war and allow for the building of apology, repentance, and coexistence.

As far as the notion, the maximalist notion of Eretz HaKodesh, of Holy Land for Jewish conquest; or for Waqf, for Islamic conquest, the fact is that for centuries and centuries these notions have been subject to interpretation. And that’s why it’s so dangerous when politicians use authority. And we know from obedience studies that the power of authorities to distort in one direction or another—we’ve seen this in the United States now—is massive, from the obedience studies of psychosocial effects of leaders.

So our argument is that if the leaderships—and we have a lot of intelligence agency folks and military folks that have come to agree with precisely our position, that our big missing ingredient was understanding Islam, was welcoming Muslims. This is from all—many senior generals in Israel. This is something that has happened in history but not yet here, in some ways because of the stubbornness of the diplomatic class of not believing it’s possible. Our argument is that if managed with a man like Yasser Arafat, very tough—very tough customer—to agree to a religious peace treaty, but at the time is the Americans and the Israeli leadership that would not accept the idea of a parallel religious treaty process, but Arafat did, that was interesting to us.

We knew what he was doing. We knew the violence he was perpetrating. But we also knew that with a vision, a common vision of the holiness of Jerusalem, for example, there was a way forward. And that way is continuing among forward-thinking people in the religious circles. But if everyone in the world says, no, religion is just for violence, then that’s what it becomes. If the only place to resist occupation is religion, people become religious. So if we create an alternative, then we’re influencing the way in which religion is going to be interpreted by millions of people.

COOK: Zaha, I wanted to give you equal time on that as well.

HASSAN: Yeah. I just want to amplify what Marc was saying about how religious interpretation can change. I think we would all agree that U.S. policy plays a huge part in the dynamics that take place in Israel-Palestine. And we’ve seen especially in the last administration, that the passionate evangelical wing of the Republican Party really had a lot of influence on the Trump administration and their thinking about how to relate to Israelis and Palestinians. And what we’re noticing now among the younger generation of Evangelicals is sort of a different way of understanding the conflict.

And in the last few years, we’ve seen support among younger Evangelicals really drop for sort of the interpretations of their elders with respect to the conflict. So I do think that people’s understandings, people’s interpretations are—can change. They change all the time. Not just in Israel-Palestine, but even in the U.S. So we shouldn’t plan our foreign policy with the understanding that things are all—people’s viewpoints are going to be stagnant, or  people’s understanding of their faith is going to be stagnant. Things evolve all the time, and it depends a lot on the way we conduct ourselves and our foreign policy as well.

COOK: OK. I think we are ready to for Q&A from participants in the webinar. So I’m going to ask the folks in the background to remind people who to ask a question. And then we’ll go forward.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Dr. Cook, back over to you.

COOK: Thank you. It’s like the voice of God telling us how to ask a question, so appropriate for this.

The first person in the queue is David Michaels.

MICHAELS: Hi. can you hear me?

COOK: Yes, we can. Go ahead, David.

MICHAELS: Great. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation and for all of your contributions. I’m David Michaels, director of UN and intercommunal affairs at B’nai B’rith International.

I wanted to question and perhaps push back a bit at Zaha Hassan’s assertion that Palestinians broadly speaking do accept the legitimacy of Jewish history and presence on the land. I think many who closely monitor Palestinian political discourse, media content, educational programing, and public polling would, in fact, report extraordinary denial of Jewish and Israeli legitimacy on the land. And I think that that denial can be attributed to a number of factors. So I’d ask, beyond incitement also by the leaders of Fatah, does she know, or do you, Dr. Hassan, do you not recognize the ideology and, in fact, the strength of major groups, including Hamas, as Dr. Cook mentioned, which openly and doctrinally demand Israel’s violent destruction?


COOK: Zaha, the floor is yours.

HASSAN: Yes. No, I don’t—I don’t deny that Hamas  has violent—(laughs)—feelings about the state of Israel as it exists today, for sure, and that it denies  the legitimacy of the state of Israel as it exists today. But likewise, as Marc was saying, there’s a lot of room for change within Hamas. And we’ve seen a lot of change with Hamas over the years. A lot of Hamas officials now have talked about the two-state solution, as a—at least as a temporary matter, a long-term temporary solution. And there is a lot of change taking place in terms of how Hamas is rebranding itself. And we saw that in the last couple of years in terms of its changes to its covenant and public statements that it’s been making.

So I don’t think that—again, these positions that various religious factions have taken, I don’t think they’re stagnant. I think they can change. A lot of Hamas’s problems with the Palestinian authority and the peace—the Oslo peace process was the way in which it didn’t address important issues to Palestinians. The core issue, which is Palestinian displacement from 1948, and the refugee issue. Those are legitimate grievances that all Palestinians want to see rectified. And so it’s not just a Hamas issue. It’s a Palestinian issue. So I think—and, again Hamas has—Hamas is sort of coming around to the idea of a two-state solution. Is it negating that? They’re calling for the same things that much of the Palestinian population is calling for, which is meaningful choice for return and reparations for refugees.

So, yeah, I didn’t—I don’t mean to say that  Hamas is not opposed to the state of Israel when I was making my comments about Palestinians and how they feel about Jewish claims to—and Jewish history in Israel-Palestine. It was to say that it’s not about in history, claims of Jews to Palestine. It’s about whether Palestinians have a place in between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at the same time.

COOK: OK. Great. Thank you.

Riki, can you see if there are any questions in the—written questions in the chat, please?

OPERATOR: We’ll take a written question from Chelsea Garbell, associate director of global spiritual life at New York University.

She asks: Why must religion be something that is instrumentalized? Religion is like any other aspect of the social and works on, and is impacted by, politics and culture in turn. The assumption of instrumentalization implies that religion isn’t an independent actor in its own right and a player in this conversation.

COOK: Who wants to take that? I suspect that that may actually be a question more appropriate to me, but I’ll leave it to the panelists. (Laughter.)

GOPIN: Well, I just—I wasn’t saying what should be. I was talking about what is. And the reality is that organized religion has always been instrumentalized, and it is around the world, sometimes for the good and sometimes for very destructive purposes. These are—many religions are state-based religions. They fall in line with whatever the leaders, democratic or nondemocratic, want them to say and do, and affirm. And these are realities that we have to live with. Sometimes it’s beneficial. If there were a serious reformation and transformation of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship, we already have evidence that across the Gulf they would be—the states would be more than ready to have the muftis and others  pronounce an embrace of the Jewish-Palestinian peace treaties, et cetera.

So and yet in Iran it would be a separate problem because of the military and political relationship between Iran and the Arab Gulf, and with Israel. And that’s—so that’s a separate—it’s very, very secular when it comes to organized religion. And that’s an opportunity if smart diplomats and smart democrats are serious about moving the world in a better direction. And I—David’s concern about Hamas’s charter is absolutely on target. These are very risky things. But they’re very risky for Palestinians too, to lose everything that they’ve never had and loved in terms of their country and of their background.

So it’s a high risk for everyone, but I’m arguing that with shifting you put pressure on the extreme wing of any religion party. The more accommodating, the more that we had a serious plan for majority-minority relationships in Palestinian areas, and majority-minority relationships in the more—in the Jewish majority areas, if that plan was more serious you would see a withering away of some of the rejectionist arguments that are so current in certain sections of Ikhwān, or Muslim Brotherhood, around the world. And we’ve already seen evidence of that. The very Islamist leaders in Israel who were doing peacebuilding, they’re Ikhwān too. They have a Muslim Brotherhood approach. But their approach is evolving based on relationships and based on what they feel is possible.

And I believe that we wouldn’t have a new government. We would still be under Netanyahu if it weren’t for the evolution of Islamist thinking in portions of Israel, that decided to join the government. I’m not saying that that solved the issue. I think we still need serious conversations among Jews about reparations and about—and about apologies, and about some people coming back. And I think that the Islamic community needs some serious conversations about truly sending signals for the Jewish right to exist as a majority state in their portion. And the more we do that, the more I think that we could see evolution. But we need the secular global leadership to embrace this approach.

COOK: Zaha, you want to get in on this? I think you’re muted.

HASSAN: Sorry, yeah. No, I don’t have anything to add to that.

COOK: OK, well then let me weigh in for just one second. I think that the tenor of some of the questions that I’ve asked imply the instrumentalization of religion. And I think that comes from both my—the work that I’ve done on Middle East politics, the work that I’ve done on Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood—which has clearly instrumentalized religion, spoken in a religious vernacular, in order to advance an inherently antidemocratic agenda. But this is obviously not an issue just in the Middle East. Let’s look at the way in which religion has been instrumentalized in the United States.

And it’s not just a phenomenon of the last four years, the last ten years, the last twenty years. This is something that happens in which religion—it is easy to use religion, because it’s an important cultural touchstone, to advance political agendas, whether for good or for bad. But I think that the idea that religion is instrumentalized should not surprise us. I think what is interesting about the efforts that Marc is involved in, the efforts that—the things that Zaha is talking about, coexistence, is trying to instrumentalize religion for purposes of coexistence. That has been much, much, much harder to do over a period of time.

We have more questions. I’m going to go to John Krysko. Can we unmute John?

KRYSKO: There we go. OK, thank you.

Rousseau famously said, “man is born free but everywhere he’s in chains.” One of the chains is the context that we view problems. Suppose the problem is not what man wants, but what God wants? That suppose that the concept of all the political things that are the human conditions are the very chains that keep us in there, and that religion, amongst others, spirituality, offers opportunities to transcend our own partisan, our own backgrounds? Building on what Marc was saying about the groundwork of what’s happening at so many levels—I know people in Palestine. I was a board member of the Interfaith Center of New York for eighteen years, have an organization on dialogue in Westchester between the three Abrahamic faiths. There’s an awful lot going on. It doesn’t reach the level of immediacy and the media.

Is it possible to create—here’s the question. Long-winded opening. Is it possible to have a kind of a Camp David, a Parliament of World Religions focused on this particular topic? Because  honestly, humans are not doing a particular great job at solving this. And the odds that they’re going to do better in the future are not particularly great. So suppose we would get  some of these minds to say, well, this is what’s happening, and have a kind of a Jacob’s ladder—develop a process to find that stairway to peace? But right now there is no real process that is not purely—that is so colored by the political and the ideological differences. Is it—do you think that would have merit to consider something like that?

COOK: I was hoping you’d say stairway to heaven, John. I’ll—

KRYSKO: It’s OK. It’s—

COOK: Marc and Zaha—Mark, Zaha, do you want to respond?

HASSAN: I’ll let Marc take that one.

GOPIN: OK. Well, I agree with the sentiment. And to understand the world of interfaith peacebuilding in the last fifty years, there’s very high-level work that’s very public, and it’s sort of nice interfaith work. And that’s necessary and good for diplomacy. And then there is secret work in order—in terms of problem solving with major leaders. And then there’s grassroots work. All of those are necessary. So I think what you’re suggesting is a great idea. But if it was hijacked by just state representatives of religion from around the region, I think that it would—I think it would not ring true with the average Palestinian or the average Jew. I think they would see it as kind of fake. But if the high-level work was accompanied by serious embrace and engagement between grassroots workers, who honestly confronted the real issues of employment, of safety, of security, of evictions, et cetera, then there’s a lot of people who, I think if they were given permission and allowed to meet and greet and negotiation, I think there would be a lot to be accomplished.

But not if it’s just the mufti of so-and-so and the chief rabbi of so-and-so. Even though  David Rosen—Rabbi David Rosen and others have done very heroic work of keeping the channels open to many countries, I think it needs that plus some very serious private negotiations in the way that Sheikh Darwish, and Sheikh Falouji, and Rabbi Melchior and others have done in Israel in order to really build a serious political shift, and a shift that affects people’s lives and jobs.

That’s where the money comes in. We have not had enough money that focuses on real improvements in human life, in dignity, that come out of religious coexistence. There used to be that. Even in Tiberias two hundred years ago, there are Hasidic-Muslim relationships that people don’t know about. There used to be a lot of wonderful Muslim-Jewish relationships in various countries, and we need to recreate that, even with the most conservative people on both sides.

Then we will have to deal with militancy and with violence in the name of religion still. But I think we will be in a better position to create a better middle for coexistence and for equality in this region.

COOK: Zaha, do you want to get in on this?

HASSAN: Yeah. I just—I think that it’s really hard for many Palestinians to think about these kinds of conversations, because after Oslo there was a lot of these kinds of conversations taking place, not among religious leaders but among Palestinians and Jewish Israelis to understand each other. And the minute there was a challenge to that—it was in the Second Intifada that all of that dialogue blew up. And it hasn’t really come back online.

And there’s such a negative connotation around these kinds of dialogues these days in the Palestinian community, because it’s seen as normalizing the occupation to have conversations while this power differential exists. And things are happening on the ground which change the status quo.

I almost feel like  even as important as these conversations that you’re talking about at the religious-leadership level are taking place in Israel-Palestine, they need to be taking place in the U.S., because I think so much of what’s happening there is driven by a lot of our own politics here.

And I think that having—if we can’t get it right among American Muslims and the American Jewish community here in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine, in a state of conflict, being able to make really big strides towards coexistence abroad. And I’ve seen it’s incredibly difficult in the U.S. to have a conversation, because a lot of times folks don’t really know what’s going on on the ground in Palestine and they don’t understand what the occupation really looks like. They haven’t seen it.

It’s only when people actually go and have an opportunity to see what’s happening that they can come back and then have really meaningful dialogues across religious—I don’t want to say divides, but along religious lines. The kind of interfaith dialogue that is successful in the U.S. that I’ve been a part of has always kind of put Palestine-Israel to the side, like we’ll talk about any subject that you want to talk about, but don’t talk about this because that gets us into trouble.

So I don’t know. I haven’t studied this issue. And I leave it to Marc to kind of enlighten us. But it’s been really challenging for me personally to try to engage in this kind of dialogue in the U.S. because it’s always—Palestine-Israel has always been marginalized in the conversation.

GOPIN: Yeah, I agree with that.

COOK: Thank you.

GOPIN: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead, Steven.

COOK: No, no, no. I just—quickly, I wanted—we have a number of questions in the queue, and I just want to make sure that we get to folks.

GOPIN: Sure.

COOK: So go ahead, Marc. Make your point, and then we’ll—

GOPIN: You’re absolutely right that the Jewish-Muslim conversation in the United States is a social contract not to talk much about Israel. And I understand that. And that’s why I don’t see it as much of a solution. I’m much more interested in people in Umm al-Fahm speaking with people in Tel Aviv. I’m much more interested in people visiting in each other’s homes and working out real problems; say, police and security.

I think that’s where the answers lie, in basic needs, in real needs, and narratives, and stories. And that’s—it can’t be dialogue. No, the dialogue in the Oslo period was terribly elitist and it really wasn’t affecting people’s lives nearly enough. But I think that’s where the answers are is real effects on people’s lives through solidarity of common needs.

COOK: Riki, can you go ahead and read the next question in the Q&A queue?

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Our next question comes from David Leslie, who’s the executive director of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. He asks, in this country how do we address the influence of Christian Zionism, characterized by pastors such as Reverend John Hagee, as well as more mainline Christian churches that seem to hold a Jewish exceptionalism which relegates Palestinians either to a secondary class or totally unknown?

COOK: Marc, I think that’s probably directed to you.

GOPIN: No, I’d like to hear Zaha’s opinion first.


HASSAN: Thanks. And first let me say hi to David Leslie. I think I know you, David, from Portland, Oregon. Thanks for that question.

I wish I had an answer to that question, because that to me is the most critical question if we want to think about how to impact U.S. policy in all of this. And  I don’t know. I don’t know how you start to engage.

As I said earlier in my remarks to the first question, I think things are changing in the evangelical community as well generationally. And so that kind of gives me some hope that this—the current situation, the current situation where you have  really conservative-minded Evangelicals really pushing the Republican Party in a direction that  is going to entrench what is today an apartheid situation, it’s very real.

And I don’t think we’re going to see much change there, because there’s nothing challenging it. The hold that this passionate segment of the Republican Party has on the party is making it so that U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine is going to swing wildly from one administration to the other as it changes from Democratic to Republican hands. And that’s not going to be—that’s not going to bode well for sensible Middle East policy and one that’s going to support Israeli-Palestine peacebuilding.

So I’ll leave it to Marc to kind of come up with—(laughs)—some ideas about how, in the short term, we can change. But I think, at least trend-wise, in the long term this might be—this might change just because of the generational shift that’s taking place.

GOPIN: Very quickly, the apocalyptic intentions of a John Hagee in buying Palestinian forests and turning them into Christian outposts, which he’s done in concert with radical settlers, I mean, that’s going to go on until the younger generation says, well, what kind of Christianity is this really? Is it a repetition of the Crusades? Is that really the focus of my religious life? And we see—as Zaha said, we see that changing among younger Evangelicals.

The problem is that progressives don’t have much of a better solution. There isn’t really a serious approach to how to embrace both Jews and Palestinians at the same time instead of proxy warfare of choosing one side or another side. So part of the Christian community is choosing the Palestinians, and part is choosing the radical settlers. And that’s a mistake. It means that it cancels each other out.

So what we need is a more visionary approach of a complete Christian embrace of both communities and of the holy land that leads to actual equality and dignity that would embrace the Sermon on the Mount for all people. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that we need that would be a wonderful Christian American contribution. But like I said, most of it is instrumentalized. And in the last administration it was a horrific shift towards a rather apocalyptic approach to ending Palestinian identity in a terrible way, which fits certain very radical approaches to the religious future of radical Christianity.

We need an alternative, because otherwise people keep slipping into very destructive forms of polarization and instrumentalization. And I think that the peacebuilders in all three communities can do that together—the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Abrahamic community. But they have to have much more serious cooperation than just nice words and conferences. It needs to mean something to the Jew who’s looking, is this going to be a safe country in the future for Jews forever? And it needs to mean something to Palestinians, say am I going to be finally recognized for my country and our right to exist?

COOK: OK. Riki, we have time for a number of other questions. And so far I have—most of those are in the chat. So can we get another one, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Jim Brenneman. Hold on one moment. I’m so sorry. There was a technical issue on my end. He asks, could both of you speak to the next generations about the hope for a confederated or one-state solution? He’s from the Berkeley School of Theology.

COOK: Zaha.

HASSAN: Yeah the confederation is a really interesting idea that I think is getting a lot more attention these days, because the one-state and the two-state look so impossible at the moment. And that would basically involve allowing refugee return, which is a really important issue to Palestinians.

It’s like the core issue for Palestinians. But it also allows for settlers to stay as well. But there would be—the Palestinians would vote for national elections for the Palestinian-state candidates, and then you’d have the Jewish Israeli citizens voting for the candidates in the national elections for Israeli candidates. So basically you would have a shared country but two separate communities living there and with voting accordingly.

So this is an interesting idea because it doesn’t allow for displacement of people and, in fact, allows for refugee return. The problem is it’s—it isn’t the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state and it doesn’t satisfy, for many Israelis their attachment to the West Bank in particular.

So, I mean, at the end of the day there has to be a rethinking, I think, of what it means to  live together and what it means to—what self-determination means for each community and how can we reconcile that in a way that allows both people to enjoy the land with dignity and with respect.

But I do think confederation is a very interesting idea. I just don’t know that we have a constituency for that any more than we have a constituency for one state with equal rights or a two-state solution. So it’s going to take building that constituency. And I think that’s the kind of work that Marc’s doing. And that is so important, because we need that, first, in order to start to conceive of any kind of political solution.

GOPIN: Just one small addition to that. I mean, it’s our job in history to invent things that don’t exist yet. That’s how human rights came about. That’s how the ideas of democracy came about. So sometimes it seems like pie in the sky, but sometimes it’s the good motivator to consider practical steps forward.

And so I think the confederation people are doing some very good thinking. They’re building relationships across adversary lines, which is good. And those relationships are hopefully building more practical recommendations.

For example, sometimes you take out, to Zaha’s point—excellent point—that this isn’t the Zionist state that people dreamed of. You really don’t have to talk the word confederation. All you have to do is say all evictions stop. No more hemorrhaging from Jerusalem of a couple of thousand people a year. All Jerusalem residents stay as residents. And nobody’s going to be evicted from anywhere. But you also say nobody’s going to be settling anywhere that’s not their land.

And so if you just stopped the process of trying to take and started to say, no, everyone belongs, and you do it by international law and you enforce it with a way in which we agree, you don’t have to use a big word like confederation. You just have to say we’re stopping. Everyone belongs, and then we’re going to work it out, whether that’s one state, two states, or confederation. And I think that would go a long way to building trust.

But I’ve always felt—and this is not a majority view, certainly among Zionists—but I always thought some bow to repatriation and to refugee return while a Jewish majority remains is something that would be a very, very powerful gesture of reconciliation and that would recognize the four hundred villages, but without sacrificing the Jewish dream of a safe majority space. And I think that that’s possible. But it takes that sense that everyone belongs, that both peoples belong there.

COOK: Thank you.

Riki, let’s try for one more. If Zaha and Marc can promise to be shorter in their answers, we can everything in in the next three and a half minutes. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Great. So our final question comes from Michael Fried from the Dispute Resolution Center. He asks, can you give any historical examples where some sort of long-term peace or nonviolence was reached through religious leaders coming together? How was the accommodation reached in Northern Ireland? What role, if any, did religious leaders play?

COOK: You have three minutes.

GOPIN: Just—there are examples around the world of—for example, in various regions of Nigeria, with almost no resources, Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye singlehandedly stopped civil wars in their region. It took a great deal of education of their populations. They were warriors themselves that stopped. So we have—I can’t do it on one foot, but we have six books—Doug Johnson’s books, Joyce Dubensky’s books, my own books. We have a lot of examples, but all of them very underfunded so they don’t reach the level of whole states that were stopped that way.

So, yes, there’s evidence. But there’s also evidence of the fact that this needs to fundamentally go more mainstream in the diplomatic community.

COOK: Zaha.

HASSAN: This is not my area. I’m going to refer everyone to Marc’s books. (Laughs.)

COOK: That was very diplomatic of you. If that’s the case, we really are running out of time. And I’m afraid that if I ask for another question, we’re going to go over, which is a big no-no at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So what I want to do is, in the last two minutes, if, Zaha, you want to have a—offer concluding remarks, followed by Marc, and then we can all sign off.

HASSAN: Yeah, I want to thank everyone for asking these great questions and for CFR for hosting us. This is a really important topic. I think we’re going to have to start being much more creative in the way we think about Israel-Palestine moving forward.

There has been a lot of dramatic change in U.S. policy that has impacted things on the ground in Israel-Palestine, unfortunately in a negative direction. And I think it’s going to take civil society, religious leaders, and anyone else that has an interest in peace to be working to help ameliorate the damage that’s been done and trying to reverse a lot of it.

So I thank everyone for being with us today. And it was really good to be with you, Steven, and you, Marc.

COOK: Marc, I know it’s not in a rabbi’s nature to be efficient with the words. But if you can, that’d be fabulous.

GOPIN: Yeah, I just want to bless this process. I think it’s wonderful that the Council on Foreign Relations is addressing this issue, and remind everybody that leaders have a tremendous power to shift religions in either a good direction or bad direction. We’ve seen that in American history. We need more leadership embracing this process of shifting cultures and religions in the direction of serious peacebuilding.

COOK: That’s perfect.

Thank you all very, very much. Zaha, thank you for your time. Marc, thank you for your time.

I want to thank Riki, who was reading the questions. That is harder than people might think it is. She did a wonderful job.

And thank you all, and we look forward to seeing you at a future roundtable and webinar. Take care. Have a good day.

Top Stories on CFR


The Chinese government has used a variety of tactics to silence its critics. Could international attention on tennis player Peng Shuai’s case push Beijing to change?


Neither the military nor pro-democracy forces are backing down after last month’s coup. The stakes are high not only for Sudan, but also for fragile democracies across Africa.


Fears of a Russian military offensive against Ukraine are back. NATO should bolster support for Kyiv and the United States should signal new efforts to thwart a controversial Russian energy pipeline.