by Larry Smith
"They [the Jews] try to kill the principle of religions with the same mentality that they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Mohammed.”--Syrian President Bashar Assad at 2001 welcoming ceremony for the Pope.
"They [the Arabs] are products of a culture in which to tell a lie creates no dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judaeo-Christian culture." --Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel in a 2002 newspaper interview.
Although Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the same historical roots and spiritual values, religion is at the heart of the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict. It all boils down to the conviction that my imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend.
Israel was founded by the leaders of a self-determination movement called Zionism.This ideology has been described as the "politicization of Judaism" and it took many forms, but all favoured the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - a territory which Muslims from Arabia had occupied since the 7th century AD.
The Zionist enterprise was resisted from the very beginning. One reason is because many Arabs shared a religious conviction that their territory should encompass all land that had ever been under Muslim control.
In fact, the charter of Hamas (the extremist group that currently runs the Palestinian Authority) fully embraces this view: "'The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [holy possession] consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day."
This is eerily reminiscent of the fervour expressed by many Zionists. According to the American Jewish Committee, "The Jewish people's link to the land of Israel is incontrovertible and unbroken. It spans nearly four thousand years. Exhibit A for this connection is the Hebrew Bible."
And to add fuel to the fire, fundamentalist Christians believe that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a necessary prerequisite for the return of Jesus to reign on Earth.
This is no idle jest. A 2003 Pew Research Survey poll found that 44 per cent of Americans believed God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people, and more than a third of US adults believed that creation of the state of Israel was a step toward the second coming of Jesus.
That survey also found that evangelicals are more pro-Israel than Americans in general -- with more than half saying they sympathize more with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians, compared with 40 per cent of Americans overall who held this view.
This conservative religious support, combined with the effective lobbying of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (formerly known as the American Zionist Committee) has played a major role in shaping United States policy towards the Middle East.
In fact, US aid to Israel since 1948 is estimated at over $90 billion, and America is seen around the world as unreservedly pro-Israel. In the 2003 Pew Global Attitudes survey, pluralities or majorities in 20 countries believed that American policies favoured Israel over the Palestinians too much.
The roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict go back to 1897, when the first Zionist congress was held in Switzerland. Palestine was then a territory of the Ottoman Empire populated by half a million Arabs and some 50,000 Jews. But the Turks prohibited large-scale Jewish immigration and there was little international support for the Zionist enterprise until the First World War.
Zionist leaders in Europe took advantage of this period of instability to seek support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. They succeeded in 1917 when British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued a declaration that tried to accommodate the Jews without prejudicing the rights of Arabs living there.
David Lloyd George, prime minister at the time, commented that although he personally agreed with its objectives, the declaration was determined mainly by considerations of war policy: "It was part of our propagandist strategy for mobilizing every opinion and force throughout the world which would weaken the enemy and improve the Allied chances."
The Balfour Declaration was approved by the victorious allies and became part of the terms of the League of Nations mandate for the area, under British administration. Unfortunately, the British had also promised to support Arab independence in return for their help during the war. The Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire stretched from Egypt to Iraq and from Lebanon to Yemen.
Excluded from this promise was a vaguely defined coastal area where Israel exists today. The British felt they could persuade the Arab nationalists to accept the Balfour Declaration in exchange for the vast benefits they were to get outside Palestine. And some Arab leaders did go along with this. It was the geopolitical reality of the day.
But in 1937 the Palestinian Arabs revolted against British rule and a royal commission was appointed which saw that the mandate was unworkable without a massive use of force. By then the idea of a Jewish national home could no longer simply be set aside. A point of no return had been reached.
At the time, according to the late Israeli academic Nadav Safran, the Jews in Palestine had made "important strides in organizing themselves for community self-government, creating a labour movement, pioneering new forms of settlement, establishing a Hebrew education system, creating a national press and so on."
But Arab resistance only intensified. As the Saudi king told a British official: "We and our subjects are deeply troubled over this Palestine question, and the cause of our disquiet and anxiety is the strange attitude of your British government, and the still more strange hypnotic influence which the Jews, a race accursed by God according to His Holy Book, and destined to final destruction and eternal damnation hereafter, appear to wield over them and the English people generally."
Still, the British did not withdraw from the obligation they had made to the Jews when Arab resistence to it was inconsequential. And the rise of fascism in Europe was to produce even more immigration so that by 1937 there were 400,000 Jews living amongst a million non-Jews in Palestine.
"From that moment on the Palestine problem ceased to be primarily a matter of adjudication between rival moral-legal claims and became instead a political issue," Safran wrote, "in which two nationalist movements capable of strong armed resistance were bent on pursuing conflicting objectives."
So the British royal commission recommended partition of the territory, which the Zionists accepted in principle but the Arabs rejected. An all-party conference in London in 1939 got nowhere, and negotiations were put on hold as the Second World War loomed.
British policy after 1939 sought to reverse the Balfour Declaration to build Arab support for the war effort. Jewish settlement was frozen and British leaders began envisaging the creation of an independent Palestine with an Arab majority that would guarantee Jewish rights.
But a universal wave of sympathy for the Jews after the war created enormous pressure to allow mass immigration of Holocaust victims to Palestine, which the Arabs strongly resisted. The British were caught in the middle, and after two years of terror attacks from both sides, they gave up and turned the issue over to the newly-formed United Nations,
In 1947 the UN recommended a three-way partition into Jewish and Arab states and an international zone for Jerusalem, but the Arabs again refused to accept. And in the ensuing six-month civil war the Jewish settlers brought most of the territory assigned to them by the partition plan under their control, and went on to proclaim the state of Israel in 1948.
Egypt then led an Arab coalition in a war to destroy Israel - but after eight months was forced to sue for peace. When the armistice was signed a de facto partition of Palestine took place, divided between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with Jerusalem split between Israel and Jordan.
After the war, some 800,000 Palestinian Arabs ended up as refugees in neighbouring countries. And a roughly similar number of Jews fled Arab lands, most going to Israel. This was akin to the population exchanges that took place between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s or Pakistan and India in 1947.
Despite the fact that Arab leaders had rejected every plan involving partition and refused to officially negotiate with the Jews, the state of Israel had become a fact on the ground with widespread international legitimacy. Even the officially anti-Zionist Soviets asserted the right of "the Jews of the whole world to the creation of a state of their own," declaring "It would be unjust not to take account of this fact and to deny the Jewish people the right to realize such aspirations."
Israel was admitted to the UN in 1949 and the more recent history of the region is well-known. So the big question for us today is: Why has the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs persisted for so long?
One answer is that it became part of the wider political conflict of the Cold War when Egypt forged a strategic military alliance with the Soviet bloc in 1955. It was no coincidence that after the dissolution of the USSR the Oslo peace accord produced the famous 1993 handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House.
According to Safran and others, "the conflict has persisted because key Arab countries had no desire for peace for reasons which have varied over the years, and could not be compelled to make peace in view of peculiar circumstances - refugees and boundaries are symptoms rather than causes of the conflict."
In fact, Israel and Jordan negotiated a secret peace treaty in 1949 t that settled all issues, but the general arab militancy prevented its implementation. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951 for pursuing it; and Anwar Sadat of Egypt met a similar fate in 1981 after concluding his peace treaty with Israel - just as Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish fundamentalist opposed to the peace process.
So the region remains locked in a struggle between militant Islamists seeking to re-establish a pan-Arab Muslim nation and equally hardline Zionists trying to restore the Biblical land of Israel. This struggle is prolonged by American reluctance to intervene decisively to bring about peace on the only acceptable basis - the two-state solution first recommended almost a century ago.
And that reluctance has a lot to do with the alliance of American Zionists and the Christian right, which has staunchly opposed any attempt to broker a settlement by power-sharing. Their version of Christianity believes that biblical prophecy leads to Armageddon, when non-believers will perish and the Jews will finally receive Christ as the Messiah.
Although these three religious groups profess the deepest of mutual hatreds, they actually have a lot in common. As one Arab commentator wrote: "The propagandists of secularism, who leave out of account the religious factor in the Palestine problem, ignore the fact that this is the only bone of contention in the world which has persisted for 30 centuries."
And according to a fundamentalist Christian web site: "What we see today in the Middle East ultimately results from a hatred for what became the Jewish people, rooted in the sins of the Old Testament Patriarchs. This conflict began at the birth of God's covenant with Abram. I believe it fitting that it won't end until God is finished with Israel on earth.