May 8, 2003
‘Leasing’ of Peace Could Be Best Move
OK, let's get it over with. Normative Islam today cannot make a peace treaty with a Jewish State in the midst of the Islamic world. It just doesn't make it, not in terms of historical precedent, cultural expectations or religious law. Islamists simply trump liberal Muslims on this.
It is true, of course, that there are ways to construct Muslim religious arguments that will enable even devout Muslims to accept a peace treaty with the State of Israel, but right now, this is striving after wind. That exercise, which is actually of inestimable importance, needs to happen later. First, the religious Arab Muslim world has to come to terms with a Jewish State within it.
In order to help this along, we need to distinguish between normative Islam and religious Muslims. The job now is to create a modus vivendi with religious as well as nonreligious Muslims -- not an Islamic peace.
But really, why do we Jews insist on the impossible? Why do we need a peace treaty? Every peace treaty formally adopted by warring parties has been broken when one side felt it was powerful or clever enough to do so. The only way to end belligerency is to create a state of nonbelligerency. A ketubah (marriage contract) alone never prevented abuse or divorce.
So what do we need? I'm not naïve about this. One cannot "make nice" with the Muslim world without some kind of a minimally acceptable religious justification. But don't expect a formal peace treaty. It is impossible right now and unnecessary.
How about a perpetually renewable 10-year lease on amicable relations? That would be just fine with me. Islam has such a tool. It is called hudna, a renewable cease-fire, and it is entirely acceptable in Islam because it is based on the impeccable precedent of the Prophet Muhammad himself.
It is true, of course, that Muhammad broke his 10-year hudna with the enemy when he found that he was strong enough to do so (no different than peace treaties). And Muslim jurists are fully aware of this. But they also ruled unanimously against breaking cease-fires when it would be self-destructive to do so.
Thus the eternal renewability of the hudna. The solution is to create a deep and prosperous economic relationship, while retaining a powerful Israeli army so that breaking the cease-fire would simply be unacceptable.
Israelis and Palestinians will never get there if Israel insists on nothing less than the impossible peace treaty (sometimes called sulh in Arabic). The problem is that without some radical reinterpretation of the Quran, most religious Muslims fall back on the normative Islamic view that forbids admitting the existence of a non-Muslim polity in the Islamic World.
Fathi Osman, the madrasa- (orthodox Muslim school) and Princeton-educated Egyptian American scholar, has shown that today's normative view was once the marginal position of militants. But the militants succeeded in setting the agenda of the caliphate at its heyday. Changing that now will take Muslims some time and effort, which we at this point do not have.
Let's give religious Muslims a way out of their dilemma.
Palestinian Islamists now run most of the social services that the Palestinian Authority has so consistently failed to provide, and this has given them tremendous power and influence over the Palestinian street. Their raison d'être is authentic Islam. And current conceptions of authentic Islam rely on the agenda set by militants over a thousand years ago.
They simply cannot countenance a peace treaty with Israel. We need to help them back out of their ideological corner when they see Jews and Muslims on Al-Jazeera TV talking together about normalizing relations.
For most of us, there need be absolutely no difference between a perpetual cease-fire and a treaty on the ground. But the difference between a cease-fire and a peace treaty is significant to Islamic clerics.
Because they will forbid a peace treaty, let's bite the bullet and take the cease-fire. However, let's also insist that cease-fire be real and include increased communication and contact. Both allow a breather for the tough business of constructing the normalization of relations and creating an economic symbiosis that will end the urge for war.
Aside from a militant minority on both sides that believe in an absolutist and uncompromising God who commands misery and even death if that will bring total victory, both Israelis and Palestinians are desperate for a future for their children. Most Muslim Arabs will compromise, even if some of their vocal religious leaders claim that Islam cannot.
Economic interdependence, along with a powerful preventive Israeli military, is the solution. The tool is the hudna, the renewable religious cease-fire.
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institue of Religion in Los Angeles.