CHICAGO: Time is not on the side of peacemakers in the Middle East.
Even relentless optimists are giving up. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become increasingly overshadowed and orchestrated on both sides by extreme and uncompromising religious groups that view their political mandate as holy and sacred.
This is hindering any peaceful resolution in the short run and will prove increasingly prohibitive to a political settlement in the long run. More than ever, peace is an unattainable mirage.
During the last 25 years, various competing stakeholders in the region have embraced religion as the dominant paradigm in determining their domestic policies. In many Arab countries, the fundamentalist revival is as significant as it is disconcerting. Hezbollah has emerged in Lebanon as a potent force, Iraq has been transformed from one of the Middle East’s most secular countries into a theocratic-militant state, and Hamas is now surging in Palestine and diluting the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Much of religious fundamentalism’s political strength derives from fundamentalists’ increasing share of the population. This demographic shift is occurring not only in the Muslim world, but also in Israel.
Israel has been slowly evolving from a culturally Jewish democracy into a religiously dominated one. Israel’s Haredi ultra-orthodox religious community, for example, is growing at a rate so high that it is redefining the political landscape. According to Israeli government statistics, Haredi Jews average 7.6 children per woman, almost three times the rate of the population as a whole. Of the Israeli Knesset’s 120 members, 20 (all male) are ultra-Orthodox, up from five just a couple of decades ago.
The number of ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset is projected to grow further as their constituents multiply. In the fractured political landscape typical of Israel, this would make it possible for organized religious parties to exert significant power over the government.
At the same time, many educated and secular Israelis are choosing to emigrate, seeking a life without ceaseless conflicts. It is estimated that about half a million Israelis, including 25% of Israel’s leading scholars, now reside in the United States. Indeed, some 40,000 Israelis reside in Silicon Valley alone. These emigrants are indirectly accelerating the demographic changes in Israel, which benefit the religious right.
Some argue that attraction to ultra-Orthodoxy is a rejection of the Western liberal tradition. Religious observance requires serious social and economic sacrifices. Many men attend yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish schools of higher instruction) until the age of forty, thus failing to accumulate valuable human capital applicable to the secular market place. As their numbers continue to grow, so may strain on the Israeli economy.
Indeed, with many of Israel’s best minds leaving their homeland, will Israel be able to remain integrated into an increasingly global economy? As the demographics continue to change, Israeli policymakers must grapple with difficult new realities.
The high birth rate of ultra-Orthodox Israelis is also having an impact on the political decisions that directly affect the peace process with the Palestinians.
Most of the 200,000 settlers in the West Bank are extremely religious. They view their presence on the West Bank as an obligation to a higher authority than the Israeli government represents.
Both Israel’s religious right and Hamas in Gaza believe that their swelling numbers are a source of strength, despite the scarcity of other resources.
Absent from both groups is the notion of negotiation and compromise.
As a result, however dangerous the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran may be ¬- for the world, for Israel, and for Sunni Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt – an Iranian “bomb might be more manageable than the demographic time bomb facing Israel and its immediate neighbors.
Time is running out. Demography is reshaping Israel and the Middle East.
Passionate believers are manifesting themselves as the local representatives of the “Almighty on Earth. New breeds of holy warriors are marginalizing secular national leaders. Divinely inspired rulers usually do not lead mankind down an auspicious path. Today’s breeds are no different.
Raja Kamal is associate dean at the Harris School for Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).