Religious Peacebuilding

For decades, international political actors – such as diplomats and heads of state – have sought to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an attempt to resolve, or at least manage it. In parallel to these official actors, there is another category of mediators which can be referred to as “insider mediators.” In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insider religious mediators are religious leaders who attempt to advance a warm ‘religious peace’ and mitigate crisis situations as they arise.

International Political Mediation

U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew out of American mediation of Israeli-Arab agreements. It was shaped by a state-centered paradigm which was conceived to generate diplomatic agreement between governments. The role of mediation was seen as consisting of five tasks: (1) establishing contact when the parties cannot afford to declare it at the beginning of the process, (2) exploring positions to determine the existing amount of convergence and set an attainable target, (3) providing necessary persuasion, pressure and incentives, (4) suggesting bridging solutions, and (5) providing credible guarantees for implementation.1 Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, Against Conventional Wisdom: Mediating the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008.

The agreements consolidated the cessation of hostilities and laid the ground for future peace talks. High-level U.S. mediation was critical for success. At first, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, through U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, the U.S. mediated both Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreements. The agreements consolidated the cessation of hostilities and laid the ground for future peace talks. After failing to convene direct negotiations between Israel and all its Arab neighbors through an international conference, a breakthrough was achieved in bilateral Israeli-Egyptian negotiations, which enjoyed a boost from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.

Egyptian President Sadat’s visit to Israel (1977)

However, only after 13 days of active mediation by U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David did President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign the Camp David Accords (1978). And the following year it was only after President Carter shuttled for two weeks between Cairo and Jerusalem did the parties reach the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty (1979).

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) and U.S. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) (Wikimedia, 1973)

However, U.S. mediators underestimated the considerable criticism these agreements would encounter regionally, in Egypt and Israel. Egypt’s regional standing took a major blow and it was consequently expelled from the Arab League, and the Egyptian public evinced great difficulty in accepting recognition of Israel. In Israel, Gush Emunim, the pro-settler religious Zionist movement led by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, opposed the agreement, both because it included the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Sinai and approved of Palestinian autonomy on lands Judaism deems divinely promised to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the very success signaled by the signing of these agreements, as the most powerful Arab country and Israel ended the state of warfare between them, created in Washington D.C. a sense that high-level U.S. brokering of bilateral negotiations is the most efficacious peacemaking route.

Seeking to build on these successes and mediate Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the U.S. first had to also establish relations with the Palestinian side. Though the Camp David Accord included a commitment to establish an elected Palestinian self-governing authority, Israel initially refused to engage with the PLO and the U.S. refused to do so without Israel’s approval. Many mediation efforts, including by European states, focused on creating dialogue between the U.S. and the PLO. In 1988, the U.S. accepted that the PLO met three conditions – recognizing Israel’s right to exist, accepting UN Resolution 242 and renouncing terrorism – and the two entered political dialogue.

New York Times front page December 15, 1988

This political dialogue allowed the U.S. to cooperate with Russia and convene in 1991 in Madrid a comprehensive peace conference, involving all relevant Arab countries. Due to Israel’s rejection of the PLO, a non-PLO Palestinian delegation attended as part of the Jordanian one. In the Madrid Conference all the attending countries formally accepted UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as a basis for future agreements, laying a foundation for territorial partition as the guiding principle with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With Israel considering the PLO a terrorist organization, high-profile U.S. attempts failed to capitalize on the newfound relationship with the PLO. Norway discreetly opened a secret communication channel between Israel and the PLO, which guided the parties toward crafting a declaration of principles which would serve as a basis for future peace agreements and provide bridging proposals to support the talks. When the parties reached agreement in 1993, Norway handed the process to the U.S. so that it would use its greater resources to chaperon it further. The Declaration of Principles’ signing ceremony took place in the U.S.. This progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track opened the door for the U.S. to support Israeli-Jordanian negotiations, which concluded in 1994 with the signing of a peace agreement between the two countries.

The U.S. subsequently brokered a series of Israeli-Palestinian agreements between 1994 and 1999, leading to Palestinian self-rule with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the launching of a five-year process consisting of a gradual expansion of the areas in which it operated. Egypt and Jordan acted as supporting mediators throughout these years, helping the U.S. secure consent from both Israel and the PLO on a large variety of issues. The outcomes were, however, a mixed bag. Many in both societies strongly opposed the agreements. In particular, Hamas and other Palestinian factions perpetrated violent attacks against Israelis. And religious Zionists ratcheted up their settlement construction efforts in order to prevent partition and limit the scope of concessions the Israeli government could offer.

U.S. mediation failed to offer remedy to the opposition of these mostly non-liberal, religious constituencies.2 Ofer Zalzberg, Beyond Liberal Peacemaking: Lessons from Israeli-Palestinian Diplomatic Peacemaking, Review of Middle East Studies, Issue 53, Volume 1, 2019. U.S. administrations tended to consider these groups “irrational” and “fundamentalist”, posting they therefore can only be defeated, revealing the administration’s’ own statist and liberal biases. The statist bias was manifested in the U.S. mediator’s engagement primiarly only with governments. The interests and values of communities and groups which were not represented by these governments were ignored.

Because for the most part the Israeli and Palestinian governments at the time had a mostly materialistic and secular approach, this exclusion was arguably most pronounced with respect to two kinds of constituencies: those committed to the so-called identity-related core issues of the conflict since 1948 (e.g. Israel’s Jewish character, the status of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority and refugee rights) and non-liberal national-religious populations (notably non-liberal religious Zionists and Hamas). The U.S. mediator’s secular, liberal bias, shared to an extent by that of the Israeli Labor Party and the Palestinian Fatah party which were in power for much of the 1990s, was evinced in the basic premises of the U.S. brokered interim agreements. The agreements assumed a correlation between the advancement of human rights, free markets, liberal democracy and international law, on the one hand, and, on the other, the promotion of peace. The 1990s were the heyday of liberal peacemaking, and U.S. policies were promoted, sometimes unconsciously, based on a sense that liberalism has won the day and should be promoted along with peace. However, many ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists, as well as so called Palestinian “Islamists,” have perceived the Oslo process since the 1990s as an attempt to advance international law at the expense of their respective religious laws, the Halacha and the Sharia. Similarly, the liberal utopia of a conflict-ending distributive compromise, clashed with religious visions and eschatologies which maintained that the land is sacred and therefore indivisible. Indeed, among the major reasons for the failure of these agreements to win broad, durable support in both societies was the omission of the land’s sanctity in the eyes of to large parts of both societies.

Apprehensive of the growing opposition to the peace process, mindful of the original five-year deadline and keen to win over adversaries of the process by disproving their claims of intractability, U.S. mediation shifted in the year 2000 toward attempting to broker a comprehensive, conflict-ending Israeli- Palestinian peace agreement. The U.S. mediators helped Israel and the PLO learn of each other’s positions on the so-called hardest issues of discord and ultimately President Clinton offered bridging proposals for addressing each of them in a conflict-ending agreement: borders, security, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. The talks failed to give birth to an agreement. Worse, disappointment from the failure and acerbic mutual accusations for it provided the breeding ground for a major escalation, known as the Second Intifada.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (left), President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the Camp David Summit (2000)

International attempts to curb the mounting violence erupting from the Second Intifada (2000) signaled a shift from conflict resolution to conflict management and from exclusive U.S. mediation to a U.S.-led coalition of international mediators. In order to end the violence, the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia formed the International Quartet. Their jointly proposed violence mitigation efforts were codified as the first of three phases of the “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”. The second, transitory phase included an optional agreement between Israel and a Palestinian state with provisional borders a third phase called for a permanent status agreement. The process failed to complete even its first phase and the Second Intifada lasted until 2005.

From the perspective of mediation, one lasting outcome of the process has been the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC), established with the stated aim of meeting U.S. commitments under the Roadmap.3 The USSC coordinates with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to enhance security cooperation; leads coalition efforts in advising the Palestinian Authority on security sector reform; and recommends opportunities for nations and international organizations to contribute to the development of a self- sustaining Palestinian security sector. The USSC effectively fosters Israeli-Palestinian security coordination brokering understandings between the security apparatuses of both parties. In addition, the position of a Quartet Envoy was established, creating a point-person who could mediate as a representative of the members of the International Quartet between Israel and the PLO. The envoy’s initial focus was Israel’s Gaza disengagement but it later grew to broader conflict management and conflict resolution. With the years, the Quartet established a robust Office, conducting low-level mediation between the parties.4 OQR Office, as part of its objective to “support the Palestinian people to build the institutions and economy of a viable, peaceful state in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem”, coordinates between Israel and the PA regarding Energy, Water, Rule of Law, Movement & Trade, Telecommunication and Economic Mapping.

The Quartet – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union Catherine Ashton – met in Moscow. They were joined by Quartet Representative Tony Blair (The Quartet, 2010)

Given the sense of Israeli-Palestinian intractability, the U.S. shifted to coordinating with Israel unilateral acts which it deemed aligned with a two-state vision. With President George W. Bush’s blessing, Israel unilaterally withdrew all its settlements from the Gaza Strip and from a small area in the north of the West Bank. The U.S.-Israeli decision to advance such a step without coordination with the Palestinian leadership, allowed Hamas to convincingly claim among Palestinians that it was its military actions which forced Israel’s withdrawal and that its violent strategy can more effectively promote Palestinian liberation. This boosted Hamas’ popularity, contributing to its victory over Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.

President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House (White House Archives, 2004)

Once Hamas got to power in Gaza through a military coup in June 2007, mediators faced a need to coordinate with a new governmental entity. Most western governments were unable to do so because of Hamas’ listing as a terrorist organization. Two western countries, Switzerland and Norway, did enter the role of third-party mediation, shuttling discreetly between Gaza, Jerusalem and Ramallah on a variety of issues. The Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator (UNSCO) initially played a similar liaison role regarding Gaza, which expanded to mediating ceasefires, humanitarian aid and stabilization, particularly in recent years. Egypt, the Gaza Strip’s southern neighbor, also found itself in the role of a mediator between Israel and Hamas. However, being an interested party, and having direct control over Gaza’s southern border and adjacent maritime areas, Egypt has been a different kind of mediator – one which both enjoys more levers over the parties and yet is also susceptible to pressure from them. With the exception of the period in which Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi (a member of the the Muslim Brotherhood) in Cairo, Egypt engaged with Hamas solely through its intelligence service, in order to avoid granting it legitimacy in the process. Two former heads of state, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, have taken advantage of the greater maneuvering room which non-governmental mediation allows in order to engage with Hamas’ leadership toward the broader aim of conflict resolution. They met regularly, directly and indirectly, with Hamas leaders, exploring among other things what context and understandings would be necessary for Hamas to abide by the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or even take part in them. These and other non-governmental mediation efforts have been ongoing since, but government-led mediation to date failed to effectively leverage them.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter sits with Ismail Haniyeh, head of Gaza’s Hamas government, during their meeting in Gaza City (Ashraf Amra/AP Photo, 2009)

U.S. mediation shifted back to pursuing conflict resolution, starting with the Annapolis Process (2007-2008), in which Israel and the PLO tried again to strike an end-of-claims agreement. After the bloody and ruinous years of the Second Intifada, the political context was extremely negative, and the odds of diplomatic success seemed so low. Moreover, the division of the Palestinian arena between the PA-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza, led the U.S. mediator to support the quest for a “shelf-agreement”, i.e. one which would be signed and then shelved until conditions allowed its implementation. Consequently, opposition efforts were less sizable and palpable than those of the 1990s.

The Annapolis Summit (2007-2008)

However, Annapolis failed to conclude an agreement. Mediators then shifted their aim to merely reaching accord on broad-stroke principles. Efforts by U.S. Envoy George Mitchell (2009-2011) and Secretary of State John Kerry (2013-2014) were different in seeking to elicit agreement only on core principles (an “agreed-upon frame of reference”) rather than a fully negotiated treaty, but similar both paradigmatically and in terms of their outcome: failing to achieve consent around the core conflict issues, let alone from non-liberal religious constituencies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (first from left), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (second from left), Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (third from left), and U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George C. Mitchell (fourth from left) chat after their meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt (State Department photo, 2010)

In the face of persistent intractability, mediators increasingly employed coercive diplomacy in order to compel one of the parties to accept specific parameters for resolution. The Obama Administration allowed the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in order to reaffirm and consolidate a legal international consensus regarding the 1967 lines as the basis for the borders between Israel and the future state of Palestine. The resolution sought to exact a cost for Israeli settlement construction by calling upon all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”. For the Israeli Right, most considered this resolution to be negating Jewish attachments to Judea and Samaria.

After the United States chose to abstain from the vote, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2334 (Jane Lane/European Lane, 2016)

The Trump administration increased diplomatic coercion, but directed it at Palestinians. Economically, the Trump administration employed both carrots and sticks: it both ended direct U.S. support to Palestinians (through USAID and UNRWA) and, at the Bahrain Conference, offered a major financial package in favor of the Palestinians to support the Trump ‘Peace to Prosperity’ Plan. Substantively, the Trump administration established U.S. positions in a manner favoring Israeli policies, notably by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and taking the position that Israeli settlements are not illegal according to international law.

The Bahrain Conference (2019)

The Trump administration also presented a detailed peace plan advocating a “realistic two-state solution”, offering Palestinians far less than had been the international consensus until then and much less than the PLO declared to be its minimum positions. The entire set of moves was vehemently rejected by Palestinians, both from the PLO and Hamas, who deemed the U.S. positions a fundamental transgression of both Palestinian nationalism, which accords paramount status to Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and Islamic jurisprudence, which in some interpretations precludes permanent partition of the land. Tellingly, Torani Religious Zionist Israelis similarly rejected the Trump Plan, despite its obvious favoring of Israeli interests over Palestinian ones, on account of its approval of permanent territorial partition which their interpretation of Judaism prohibits.

Palestinians holding flags of Palestine, march to protest against the Trump peace plan on (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency, 2020)  


(by Daniel Roth)

What is ‘Insider Religious Mediation’?

In parallel to official third party governmental mediators involving diplomats and heads of state, there is another, often overlooked power structure which wields significant clout in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This group can be referred to as “insider mediators.” The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines insider mediators as “individual(s), groups, entities or institutions possessing high levels of legitimacy and trust with the individuals and institutions involved in a specific conflict setting by virtue of their relationships and reputation with the parties and who/which possess a unique ability to directly and indirectly influence the conflict parties’ behavior and thinking.”5 Guidance Notes: Supporting Insider Mediation 2014, p.9—Strengthening-Resilience-to-Conflict-and-Turbulence–EU%2520Guidance%2520Note.pdf&ust=1607114040000000&usg=AOvVaw3nx1Lcon1Yho_QDLZi2PCH&hl=en&source=gmail

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in its 2016 report entitled Support to Insider Mediation (p. 28), notes that insider mediators, as opposed to outsiders, “may be rooted in resources from the local culture and also from religion” often consisting of religious leaders/authorities. Their “legitimacy and effectiveness to mediate is not necessarily based on impartiality but on partiality and closeness to the context.” And finally, “a crucial advantage is also insiders’ closeness or access to some of the conflict parties that no one else can reach out to, especially radical, hard-to-reach and armed actors.”

Insider Religious Mediation in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insider religious mediators are religious leaders who attempt to advance a warm ‘religious peace’ and mitigate crisis situations as they arise. Insider religious mediation does not mean advancing people-to-people grassroots religious peacebuilding programs or even engaging religious leaders in facilitated dialogue groups, (though they may give their support to these important activities). Rather, it functions as a channel of mediation alongside the formal Track 1 governmental mediation process working to connect the stakeholders whose worldviews have traditionally collided and rejected the various political peace processes. These mediators do not seek to replace the formal political process but rather to help ensure religion no longer serves as a barrier to peace but as a critical bridge to a warm peace.6 Yitzhak Reiter, “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict“, in Barriers to Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict(Editor: Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov), The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2010, pp. 228 – 263. This model of mediation is in line with traditional religious models of third-party mediation and is in contrast to modern Western forms of professional mediation.7 See Daniel Roth, Third-Party Peacemekaers in Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2021, chapter 1.

These insider religious mediators often do not see themselves and certainly do not introduce themselves as mediators, but rather as religious leaders.  Insider religious mediators seek to engage the most senior and often extreme religious and political leaders or stakeholders who have significant influence over the conflict and the conflicting worldviews. They do so through using their ever expanding web of deeply trusted relationships, to arrange discreet and intimate meetings. These meetings may take place in Israel, the Palestinian Territories or abroad, such as Istanbul, Athens, Oslo etc. The mediations relate to the political reality at hand, whether it be a change in the current political reality, a particular crisis situation or an opportunity to introduce a new leader into their intimate web of relationships. Meetings can range from just a few people to as many as fifteen or twenty, each participant simultaneously serving as a religious leader and potentially as an insider mediator. For example, a meeting may take place between an Islamic-Palestinian insider mediator and a more senior Islamic leader. They may discuss, among other topics, the possibility of introducing the senior Islamic leader to other trusted partners within the ‘insider mediator’ network, such as a Jewish Israeli insider mediator, who is himself a representative religious leader of the other side. The more senior the leader being approached, the more likely it is for there to be several insider religious mediators attending the meeting, each one bringing his/her own reputation and connections. These insider religious mediators often do not see themselves and certainly do not introduce themselves as mediators, but rather as religious leaders. Often the relationships are on a scale, with the more junior religious leader serving to a larger extent in the role of the mediator going back and forth to help weave together the web of relationships.

What is ‘religious peace’?

Religious peace is often contrasted with secular or political peace. Political peace may be understood as consisting of a peace agreement negotiated and signed by (primarily) secular, liberal politicians and based upon tangible interests (i.e. economic, demographic, security, natural resources, etc.). Religious peace, in contrast, is a warm peace between religious leaders and their communities who see each other as neighbors and partners and not enemies. It is based on shared core religious values and beliefs “such as that we are all created by and in the image of the same God, that crushing the other is crushing the Divine in the other – are part of the fabric of the peace.”8 Rabbi Michael Melchior, “Establishing a Religious Peace” in Ron Kronish, Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel, 2015, p. 122 Religious peace goes beyond a signed written agreement that seeks to ‘resolve the conflict’. It is discussed and deliberated upon by senior, often illiberal influential religious leaders, and is based upon deep religious convictions of each sides theology and religious law. Religious peace does not mean religious authorities offering their support or ‘permission’ to a secular political peace process (as was common in the 1990s). Rather, it means seeing enterprise of peace (more accurately, Shalom/Salam) as the fulfilment of a religious obligation, and for some, as part of a prophetic mission and Divine destiny and not as an abrogation or compromise of one’s religious beliefs.

Outsider governmental mediators have little understanding of these core religious issues behind the conflict (besides Jerusalem), and have few means of engaging them constructively. The necessity for advancing religious peace stems from the understanding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a dispute between two national identities over scarcity of resources that can be divided up fairly through interest-based problem solving. Rather, there are additional worldviews, in particular, that of religious Muslims, as represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that of right-wing Torani religious Zionist Jews, who live in and strongly support the settlement movement. According to these worldviews, the conflict is not just a real-estate dispute that can be solved ‘rationally’ but is a G-d given holy land that is undividable and the struggle over it has cosmic consequences. The conflict is also deeply grounded in how each religious tradition sees the other through its religious worldview (how Jews are portrayed in Islamic texts and gentiles in Jewish texts). Outsider governmental mediators have little understanding of these core religious issues behind the conflict (besides Jerusalem), and have few means of engaging them constructively. Religious leaders serving as insider religious mediators, who have a deep understanding of the religious worldviews and possess strong ties to the most influential religious leaders, have the potential for expanding the tent of peace to include these religious worldviews instead of unsuccessfully attempting to continue to exclude them.

A Timeline of Insider Religious Mediation in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A Timeline of Insider Religious Mediation in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Since the beginning of the First Intifada in the late 1980s and even more so from the onset of the political peace process in the early 1990s, there have been a handful of religious leaders who began functioning as ‘insider religious mediators’ informally and discreetly working together, in particular Rabbi Menachem Froman and Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish. Perhaps the earliest example of religious leaders serving as insider religious mediators attempting to work together to mitigate a crisis situation occurred in the context of the abduction of the Israeli soldier, Nachshon Wachsman in October, 1994.

Following the kidnapping, Wachsman’s parents turned to Rabbi Froman to see if he could speak with his acquaintances in Hamas (through his connections with Sheikh Abdullah) and try to reach an agreement to release their son. Rabbi Froman, related in an interview many years later that he had reached a telephone agreement with Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior figure in the Hamas political leadership, according to which Nachshon Wachsman would be released in return for the release of Hamas religious and political leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (1937 – 2004) from Israeli prison. However, when this agreement reached the hands of the Israeli prime minster at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, he replied that he (Rabin) does not make deals with Hamas. Wachsman was later killed by his hostage takers in a failed special forces attempt to free him. In an interview of Sheikh Abdullah in Haaretz (February 12, 1995), he also related how he had attempted to mediate between Hamas and Israel in various incidents, such as the abduction of Nachshon Wachsman, and how he had called upon Hamas to spare the lives of soldiers.

Kidnapping of Nachshon Wechsam (Videopedia, 1994)

Throughout the 1990s, Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Abdullah continued to approach senior religious and political leaders in efforts to include them in religious peacebuilding. Prof. Hillel Cohen, an Israeli scholar who studies and writes about Jewish-Arab relations in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, related in his eulogy for Rabbi Froman, that in 1996, Rabbi Froman worked out another agreement with senior Hamas leaders that would bring about a cease fire between Hamas and Israel as well as the release of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. However, at the exact time that Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was supposed to be reviewing the terms of the draft agreement, the Israeli Mossad carried out a failed assassination attempt on Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal in Jordan. The end result – Israel was forced to accept far less favorable terms for the release of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. In 1997, after the release of Sheikh Yassin, Rabbi Froman went to Gaza to meet Sheikh Yassin once again and deliver a letter from the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, regarding advancing a religiously sanctioned long term ceasefire. Rabbi Froman was met there by other insider religious mediators, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, and Sheikh Imad Faluji. However, these early attempts of insider religious mediation were not taken seriously by the Israeli government or by the international community. Indeed, his visit to Gaza drew strong opposition from Rabbi Froman’s own community including the daubing of his home and threats on his life.

In January 2002, the first major public gathering of senior religious leaders organized by insider religious mediators took place, ”the Alexandria Summit of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land”. The primary insider religious leaders who helped make this happen were Rabbi Michael Melchior, drawing on his influence both as a religious leader and as Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister at the time, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Cannon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East and Sheikh Talal Sider, an Islamic religious and political leader from Hebron who was initially one of the founders of Hamas and later a minister in the Palestinian Authority, to convene senior religious leaders for the first ever religious peace summit to be held in the Middle East. Sheikh Talal Sider, who testified that his own change of heart was as a result of his many meetings with Rabbi Froman, fell ill shortly after the summit and ultimately passed away in 2007. Rabbi Melchior described him as “a senior and full partner to attempts to persuade the leaders of the three faiths to turn religion into a lever for peace, brotherhood and hope.”

The summit, despite taking place in the midst of the Second Intifada, received the backing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Participants included Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (1941-2020), the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Sheikh Taisir Tamimi, Chief Justice of the Palestinian Sharia’ Courts, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (1928 – 2010) the Grand Mufti of Egypt and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University at the time, one of the most influential Islamic institutions in the Muslim world, the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, as well as other senior Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders. The summit resulted in the Alexandria Declaration, a statement by these senior religious leaders in the region stating that killing in the name of G-d is a desecration of the Divine name, a commitment to resolve their disputes peacefully and a pledge “to continue a joint quest for a just peace”.9 The complete document and list of participants can be found in English in a report by the United States Institute for Peace, “Healing the Holy Land: Interreligious Peacebuilding in Israel/Palestine” (Y Landau, 2003, 16-25, 51-52)

Getting the various religious leaders to not only participate in this summit but also agree on the exact language of the declaration was far from straight forward and took tremendous efforts by the insider religious mediators, as is described in detail by Canon Andrew White10 See Clayton Maring, “War Junkie for G-d: Andrew White, Iraq”, in Peacemakers in Action: Volume 2: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding, (Ed, Joyce S. Dubensky), Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp 90 – 93. The summit and its declaration won praise from world leaders, however, it was also harshly criticized by the more extremist worldviews, namely Hamas.

“Alexandria in the name of God: Leaders of religious institutions – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – came out yesterday with a joint declaration, ‘The Alexandria Declaration’, that sees murder in the name of God a desecration of the holy and a ‘pollution’ of religion. This is an impressive attempt, very relevant, to separate religion from terror.” Israeli journalist (Nahum Barnea/Yedioth Ahronoth, 2002)

The Alexandria Declaration in Hebrew and Arabic and image of participants (courtesy of Rabbi Melchior)

A month later, a group of religious leaders who had participated in the summit, paid a visit to Archbishop Carey at Lambert Palace in London. The visitors included Rabbi Melchior, Latin Patriarch Sabah and Sheikh al-Sider, and received the prestigious Coventry Prize. Rabbi Froman saw this first post-Alexandria gathering in London as an opportunity to engage politicians like Prime Minister Tony Blair in the religious peacebuilding initiative. A few months later the religious leaders were invited by Sheikh Tantawy, who had attended the Alexandria Summit, to pay a historic visit to Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Rabbi Melchior had the opportunity to address the large student body of future Islamic scholars about religious peace. Two years later, the group of religious leaders returned to Al-Azhar to speak to many of the key Islamic leaders and judges, including from some of the most extreme factions, from around the Sunni world, including from the West Bank and Gaza. A week after the first visit to Al-Azhar, in 2002, the group flew to the Vatican to meet with the ailing Pope John Paul II and received his blessing.

The Alexandria Declaration also made ripples around the world. On August 22, 2002, ‘insider religious mediators’ in Nigeria, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, signed the Kaduna Peace Declaration together with twenty other religious leaders and carved it into a stone monument with a text almost identical to the Alexandra Declaration.

Shendam Peace Affirmation

Rabbi Melchior with Pastor James and Imam Ashafa KAICIID conference, Vienna (2013)

Following the Alexandria Summit and subsequent process, there was a strong desire to continue and build off of this historic successful gathering of religious leaders. In 2005, participants from the Alexandria Summit, including Rabbi Melchior and Rabbi David Rosen, a world leader in advancing interreligious dialogue and peace, established the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL). The member institutions of CRIHL were the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the leaders of the local Churches of the Holy Land, the Minister of the Islamic Waqf at the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic Sharia Court of the PA. As religious leaders, the council strove “to prevent religion from being used as a source of conflict, and to promote mutual respect, a just and comprehensive peace and reconciliation between people of all faiths in the Holy Land and worldwide.” CRIHL however, ceased to operate on a regular basis since 2013, but did reconvene to meet with Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. administration’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations in 2017.11 For more about CRIHL and Rabbi David Rosen see Yvonne Wang, How Can Religion Contribute to Peace in the Holy Land? A Study of Religious Peacework in Jerusalem, PhD Thesis University of Oslo, 2011, pp. 197 – 209

In 2002, in the aftermath of the Alexandria Summit, the Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation was established by Rabbi Melchior and Gitta Hazani –Melchior (married to a relative of Rabbi Melchior), which engaged numerous Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in Israel primarily through joint educational activities. These interreligious educational programs continued to operate until 2015.

The Center for Interreligious Cooperation (Mosaica, 2015)

In 2005, the first formal network of insider religious mediators was established. Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and Sheikh Imad Faluji, a former Hamas spokesman, established a strategic network between them, as insider religious mediators, and their centers which they each directed. This partnership was initially referred to as “Alexandria Process Part II” and later renamed The Religious Peace Initiative in the Middle East. Sheikh Imad’s center in Gaza and Sheikh Abdullah’s center in Kfar Kassem were later renamed the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations, and Rabbi Melchior’s center was named, Mosaica, which continues to be located in Jerusalem until this day. Together, these three insider religious mediators, with their centers and other partners, continued what had been started in the Alexandria process. However, this time, they aimed at engaging the more extreme and influential religious leadership on both sides, who were not part of the official Israeli or Palestinian establishment, and who had been critical of the Alexandria process. The goal was to reach out to the religious leaders who had far more influence on the religious worldviews in conflict, namely the Islamic leaders aligned with Hamas and the larger global Muslim Brotherhood movement as well as the right-wing religious Zionist rabbis.

Today, The Religious Peace Initiative (RPI), continues to serve as a strategic network of insider religious mediators, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Sheikh Ra’ed Bader, Sheikh Imad Faluji, and their centers, the Mosaica Center and the Adam Centers. Together, these insider religious mediators work to advance religious peace and help mitigate crisis situations along the way.  These crisis situations can be of a religious nature, such as the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Crisis of 2017 (see below), or simply any crisis that risks the lives of thousands, such as efforts to help mediate between the World Health Organization and senior religious and medical leaders in the region in the fight against Covid-19.

I24 News Interview With Sheikh Ra’ed Bader (2020)

In 2019, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth  established a new initiative focused on engaging religious leaders on the community level, in particular within mixed Jewish –Arab cities and areas within Israel where tensions are often high. The goals are for local religious leaders to ultimately work together as insider religious mediators between their communities and advance religious peace and mitigate crisis situations as they arise.

Connecting Senior Religious Leaders to Religious Peace

Insider religious mediators are also religious leaders in their own right and are connected to more senior and religious leaders, who are extremely influential stakeholders in sustaining or mitigating the conflict. The religious mediators are constantly looking to strengthen their webs of relationships and leverage them to connect to the next tier of the web. Connecting to leaders cannot be measured quantitatively but rather qualitatively. It can take a time to properly build one relationship and in turn, bring that new leader to see themselves as an insider mediator who will then help to connect to the next leader, who is even more senior and influential.

Even once these relationships are established, they need to constantly be maintained and nurtured by virtue of the relevance and tangible results achieved by the connection (often not directly in the context of the conflict).

The primary means through which this work happens is through the arrangement of small intimate and discreet meetings and occasionally larger gatherings, including some which are done publicly.

Rabbi Melchior, in an article he published in the Israeli newspaper, Makor Rishon, September 18, 2020 entitled “Peace of Believers”, described in detail about one particular meeting he and Sheikh Ra’ed attended, while still withholding certain identifying details:

“Several years ago, I traveled with my Muslim friends to a meeting, one of hundreds, with senior Islamic leaders… as part of Mosaica’s Religious Peace Initiative in the Middle East. This meeting was not just another meeting. I waited months, perhaps years. The leader who I met with was the leading Islamic religious leader after the assassination of Sheikh Achmad Yassin (the leader of Hamas). He and his family spent much time in jail with us (Israelis)…. He agreed to meet with me in his home after much urging from his partners and his students, that the senior amongst them was the Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, of blessed memory.”

Rabbi Melchior describes in detail how they sat for seven challenging hours during which they discussed religious principles of war and peace, ceasefires as opposed to peace and how religious peace is what has been missing from the secular political peace processes.

“The Sheikh was quiet. And then pounded on the table and said: ‘the young rabbi is right. There is a time for war and a time for peace.’ Other than us, there were twenty people who sat the whole time quietly and vigilantly, religious leaders primarily from Hamas, who were in shock from the turn of events: ‘what will people say? Your whole life, you instructed us otherwise?’ The Sheikh responded in a resolute manner: ‘No one ever presented peace as a religious project. And in addition, my whole life, I never was afraid from what people would say. I am only afraid of Allah.’ We hugged, took a picture together, prayed each one in his corner and we parted in peace.”

Rabbi Froman worked hard to constantly engage religious and political leaders and had a particularly unique method of trying to arrange meetings: through writing letters. Rabbi Froman sent tens of letters to heads of state upon their inauguration, well-known writers and thinkers (such as a letter to Elie Wiesel in 2010) and religious leaders, urging them to consider his proposal of advancing peace through religion instead of without it. For example, in 2008, Rabbi Froman, together with Gershon Baskin, a non-religious insider mediator, sent such a letter to U.S. President Barak Obama shortly after his election victory. They urged him and his new administration to think differently about how Middle East peace had been conceptualized for the past 20 years. While Rabbi Froman never had the opportunity to meet with President Obama, he did meet with Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2010, with his partner and long-time Islamic peacemaker, Sheikh Ghassan Manasra. The meeting took place soon after the incident of the Mavi Marmara, which significantly damaged Turkey-Israel relations.

Israeli News, Channel Two reports on Rabbi Froman’s meeting with PM Erdogan (June 3, 2010)

Though much of the meetings and gatherings of senior religious mediators are discreet and far from the public eye, there have been a few public gatherings in which the mediators have brought senior religious leaders from both sides together to express support for religious peace. The first was the Alexandria Summit of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land in 2002, described above. Over the years the Religious Peace Initiative continues to serve as the platform for numerous discreet gatherings of religious leaders (such as Norway, 2011 and Athens, 2015). In 2015, several of the Religious Peace Initiatives’ senior insider religious mediators, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Ra’ed and Rabbi Avi Gisser, all spoke as part of a panel at the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv, entitled, “Jerusalem and the Religious Aspect of the Conflict: Towards Reconciliation or Explosion?” This was a rare occasion that these leaders spoke about religious peace in public and in a forum which is predominately liberal and secular and the notion of ‘religious peace’ is considered at best, exotic and at worst, a threat to their own worldview.

Video of Sheikh Ra’ed Bader, Rabbi Melchior and Rabbi Avi Gisser speaking at Haaretz Peace Conference (2015)

The most historic gathering of senior religious leaders, since the Alexandria Summit of 2002, was the Alicante Summit of Religious Leaders for Peace in the Middle East which took place in November 2016 in Alicante, Spain under the official auspices of the Spanish Foreign Ministry and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). The Religious Peace Initiative’s senior religious mediators participated and helped organize the historic conference, including, Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Ra’ed, Sheikh Imad and Rabbi Gisser. Similar to the Alexandria Summit in 2002, one of Israel’s Chief Rabbis participated,  Rabbi David Lau, and the Palestinian Authority‘s top Sharia judge, Dr. Mahmoud al-Habbash also attended. However, at this summit more ‘extreme’ worldviews were included as well.

On the Jewish side, one of the most influential leaders of the Torani religious Zionist movement Rabbi Yaakov Ariel attended, and on the Islamic side, Dr. Naser A-din Al-shaer, Senior Professor at Al-Najah University in Nablus and Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of Hamas in the Palestinian Cabinet was also scheduled to attend Alicante. The professor, however, was unable to attend due to permit issues. The participants condemned all religious violence stating that “the proper means of solving conflict and disagreement is by negotiation and deliberation only” and they committed “to relentlessly seek peace in the Land.” The historic summit was also covered in the English, Hebrew and Arabic media.

Religious Leaders for Peace in the Middle East Summit (Alicante/Spain, 2016)

A year later, in 2017, at the invitation of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), many of the senior insider religious mediators and leaders who had attended and helped organize the Alicante Summit, including, Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Ra’ed, Sheikh Imad, Dr. Nasser, and Rabbi Gisser as well as Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, presented their work at a special seminar on The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacebuilding in the Middle East at the United Nations in NY.

Video of complete conference at the UN, (photo courtesy of Rabbi Melchior, July 19, 2017)

Preventing and Responding to Violence in the Name of Religion

Preventing and responding to violence in the name of religion has been a core value since the Alexandria Declaration in 2002 which stated, “The Holy Land is holy to all three of our faiths. Therefore, followers of the divine religions must respect its sanctity and bloodshed must not be allowed to pollute it.” This notion was later reaffirmed in the Alicante Declaration which stated that “The violence that is conducted, supposedly in the name of God, is a desecration of His name, a crime against those who are created in His image, and a debasement of faith. The proper means of solving conflict and disagreement is by negotiation and deliberation only.” Senior insider religious mediators invest a significant amount of effort in addressing violence whether it be to try and prevent it or to respond and denounce it.

Insider religious mediators with their vast network of connections to other religious leaders within their communities have played an important role in mitigating crisis situations in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel. Often religious Jewish Israelis and Islamist ‘Palestinians of 48’ (Arab citizens of Israel) live in the same neighborhoods within these mixed cities, which leads to constant tension. These mixed cities, in certain ways, serve as a microcosm of the larger Arab – Israeli conflict. Tensions in these cities are often high, but they are particularly so around religious holidays. In 2008, rioting broke out in the mixed city of Acre due to an incident that had taken place on the holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur. Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish quickly made public calls for peace. Drawing on religious symbolism from the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which immediately follows Yom Kippur and commemorates the temporary shelters built by the Israelites on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, the religious leaders sat together in a sukkah which they called the ‘Sukkah of Peace’. Rabbi Melchior condemned the violence: “We will not accept any form of incitement . . . In Israel’s sukkah there must be room for its Muslim and Christian citizens. We must cast out those who incite, and who hate, and leave room only for the good.”

Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Namir Darwish meet at ‘Peace Sukkah’ (George Ginsburg/Ynet News, 2008)

In 2014, Yom Kippur and the most joyous day of the Islamic calendar, Eid Al-Adha fell on the same day. There were police warnings that there would be an eruption of violence, particularly in mixed Arab-Jewish cities, such as had taken place in Acre in 2008. This time, Rabbi Melchior and Sheikh Ra’ed a leading Islamic authority and a top student of Sheikh Abdullah who served beside him in directing the Adam Center, reached out to “the most radical” Muslim leaders and asked for their support in attempting to avoid violence. The Muslim leaders issued a historic fatwa [Islamic religious ruling] which was published in the Palestinian press and posted on the walls of mosques calling on their co-religionists to respect Yom Kippur. In parallel, Rabbi Melchior arranged for senior rabbis to publish a statement explaining the significance of Eid Al-Adha to Muslims. Rabbi Melchior and Mosaica also arranged a series of meetings between rabbis and imams explaining the sensitivities and encouraging them to work together to prevent violence.

Fatwa (Islamic ruling) to respect Yom Kippur and celebrate Eid Al-Adha

In addition, Mosaica’s Tochnit Gishurim, which supports tens of community mediation centers throughout Israel, including in the mixed cities, held a number of events and meetings in these cities promoting nonviolence and tolerance on this sensitive, duel holy day. Due to their joint efforts, and the efforts of their partners, Mosaica played an essential role in preventing an outbreak of violence on that day. In November 2019, the Religious Peace Initiative’s senior insider religious mediators, together with Mosaica’s Center for Conflict Resolution, presented recommendations to mitigate crisis situations to the top 300 Israeli police officers.

Rabbi Melchior speaking about the role of religious leaders preventing violence on Yom Kippur/Eid Al-Adha to top Israeli police officers (November, 2019)

Religious leaders, such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential Islamic authorities in the world, have had a direct impact on the level of violence in the region. His acceptance of suicide attacks carried out by Hamas against Israel in the mid-90’s is a prominent example. In direct opposition to this religious position, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish wrote a controversial book in 1999 (Auqifu Al-Siyasat Al-Intihariya Li-Hukumat Al-Istitan Al-Israeiliya) in which he openly spoke out against suicide bombings being carried out in the name of Islam against Israel.

Image of book

Years later, in 2016, Sheikh Qaradawi reversed his ruling on Saudi TV, stating that such suicide bombings were no longer permitted. This historic change in religious ruling attracted the attention of well-known Israeli journalist Zvi Yehezkeli who reported about it on Israel’s Channel 13 TV.

Watch the full video

Rabbi Michael Melchior, in his article “Don’t dismiss the Islamic ruling on suicide attacks” explained some of the back story:

“Why did Sheikh Qaradawi reverse his ruling and why now? Just prior to announcing his decision on Saudi television, Qaradawi met with Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Shaer, a renowned Islamic scholar, former deputy prime minister for Hamas in the joint Fatah-Hamas Government and a key Palestinian figure in an initiative my colleagues and I have been working on for several years. The Religious Peace Initiative… Al-Shaer reported to Qaradawi about the Religious Peace Initiative and its unique approach of pursuing peace by including, rather than excluding, religious Jews and Islamists. Al-Shaer also requested Qaradawi’s support and blessing for the Initiative and asked him to publicly renounce his earlier fatwa. Qaradawi reported this meeting on his website and took to the airwaves.”

Insider religious mediators will often be the first religious leaders to denounce acts of ethno-national violence, and in addition, take action to engage others, often more senior religious leaders, to make declarations denouncing violence and/or visit the scene of the crime or visit with survivors. Sheikh Abdullah and his followers in the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement consistently and sharply condemned the suicide bombings that were carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in early 1996 on the pretext that ‘murder is murder’, regardless of the background to the murder or the motives for carrying it out. Years later, Sheikh Ra’ed, Sheikh Abdullah’s primary disciple and the leading Islamic authority of the Southern Branch publicly denounced the violent murder of the Fogel Family in 2011.

The Jewish – Israeli insider mediators also often acted quickly to denounce acts of violence done by Jews to Palestinians. This meant involving more senior religious leaders. In 2001, Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron sent a letter denouncing the murder of three Palestinians through Rabbi Froman to Yasser Arafat. Later, Rabbi Froman was constantly the first to denounce acts of violence known as “price tag”. He would then lead and pay respect, such as following the burning of the Mosque in Lubban al-Sharqiya on May 4, 2010 by Jewish extremists. Several months later on October 5, 2010, another mosque was burnt in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar. This time Rabbi Froman came to visit the mosque with more senior religious Zionist rabbis from the West Bank, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein and Rabbi Shlomo Risken, who were not generally aligned with his views.

Rabbi Menachem Froman visting burnt Mosque (Lubban Al-Sharqiya, 2010)

In the summer of 2015, following the horrific Duma arson attack, Rabbi Melchior was approached by the heads of the national religious rabbinic organization Tzohar who wanted to visit the Duma family for a condolence meeting. Rabbi Melchior, together with his partner, Sheikh Abdullah, arranged a meeting at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel where family members were being treated. The Jewish delegation included Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, and the heads of the Tzohar organization, Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Rafi Feurstein. The group of rabbis met with the surviving family members together with Rabbi Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah and committed to peace and ongoing dialogue.

Watch the full video

Speaking out against violence has come to also include speaking out against anti-semitism and islamophobia. Rabbi Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah made a pact that every time there is an act of anti-semitism, Sheikh Abdullah would speak out against it, and every time there is an act of islamophobia, Rabbi Melchior would denounce it. In 1997, a young Russian immigrant created caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) which she distributed around Hebron. This enraged the local residents who saw it as a blasphemous attack on Islam. President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the act, but these condemnations were not enough to defuse the rage. Rabbi Melchior, in his Facebook post eulogizing the passing of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron (d. April 12, 2020) tells of how he heard from his Palestinian contacts that the imams in Hebron were preparing incendiary sermons to deliver in the mosques, which could inflame violent riots. He understood that there was a need for a religious voice (and not just political voices) to win the confidence of the Muslim leadership. Rabbi Melchior brought Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron to Hebron where they met with the Grand Mufti of Hebron. The Chief Rabbi explained that the woman’s actions were an abomination according to Jewish law. The Mufti was reassured by this response from the highest Jewish authority in Israel. He calmed the imams and bloodshed was avoided.

In 2007, Sheikh Abdullah was the first Muslim leader to speak at the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism, which convened that year in Jerusalem. He declared, “I am a soldier, and hopefully the lead soldier, in the war against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the region.” Sheikh Abdullah sharply criticized anyone, including Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust, “Tell anyone who denies the Holocaust: ‘Go ask the Germans, did you do it or not?’”. In April 2020, Member of Knesset (MK) Mansour Abbas delivered a speech on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day in which he attested, “As a religious Palestinian Muslim Arab, who was raised on the legacy of Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish who founded the Islamic Movement, I have empathy for the pain and suffering over the years of Holocaust survivors and the families of the murdered.”

It is also important to note the historic visit by Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League based in Saudi Arabia, to Auschwitz in January 2020. The trip took place together with other Islamic leaders along side leaders of the American Jewish Committee and was an important step towards advancing religious peace between Jews and the Muslim world.

Watch the full video

Mediating Crisis Situations in Real Time

A significant amount of the senior religious mediators’ time and resources are invested in discreetly responding and mitigating crisis situations behind the scenes, as they arise in real time in order to save lives. These situations, in turn, also strengthen their network of connection and standing within and between their communities. Rabbi Melchior states that his network of religious mediators is constantly intervening to maintain peace, and often not in the context of religious matters. Rabbi Melchior has also shared that most of their work takes place quietly and confidentially and each success is built on the relationships that the insider religious mediators have developed with one another.

As noted above, Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Abdullah already began working to advance religiously sanctioned cease fires and hostage exchanges between Hamas and Israel in the mid-90s. Over the years, Rabbi Froman continued to serve as an insider religious mediator conducting meetings to advance cease fires as well as hostage exchanges. On June 26, 2006, it was reported that Rabbi Froman was blocked by Israeli forces in the middle of conducting a meeting in Jerusalem with senior Hamas leaders including, Mahmoud Abu-Ter as well as Israeli MK Ibrahim Sarsour (who took over for Sheikh Abdullah as leader of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement). The meeting was supposedly about announcing a cease fire between Hamas and Israel. On February 15, 2008, Rabbi Froman together with Khaled Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist with close ties to Hamas, attempted to mediate a ceasefire and hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas. They connected senior religious leaders in Turkey with senior religious leaders in Israel in order to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as well as to bring about a ceasefire.

Another example of insider religious mediators operating behind the scenes in hostage situations is the Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, between April 2 –May 10, 2002, only months after the Alexandria Summit. Canon Andrew White describes in great detail how he, together with Rabbi Melchior and other insider religious mediators who had participated in the summit, engaged in intense shuttle diplomacy between the religious and political leaders helping to resolve the siege.12 See Clayton Maring, “War Junkie for G-d: Andrew White, Iraq”, in Peacemakers in Action: Volume 2: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding, (Ed, Joyce S. Dubensky), Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp 93-95

Perhaps the most profound example of the religious peace mediation took place after two Muslim Arab citizens of Israel killed two Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque on July 14, 2017. Israeli police subsequently set up cameras and metal detectors at the entrance to Al-Aqsa, leading to calls of violence, in what became known as the Temple Mount Crisis. The installation caused great offense in the Muslim world and the situation was inflamed by extremists who wanted, according to Rabbi Melchior, to use the sensitivity of the site to Jews and Muslims “to create a world war, a clash of civilizations.” Riots broke out on the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount, East Jerusalem and the West Bank with several fatalities. Since the Israeli government had limited channels of communication with senior Palestinian religious leaders, the authorities were unable to defuse the rage. The Jerusalem Police appealed to Rabbi Melchior for help. Rabbi Melchior, together with the other senior insider mediators, met with the eight leaders of the Waqf – the Muslim authority responsible for overseeing the Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to Rabbi Melchior, they negotiated non-stop for a week “before the whole Middle East went up in flames.” Finally, they forged an agreement “with the support of a lot of players in the Muslim world and the Israeli police, approved by the Israeli cabinet.” The metal detectors were removed and the Waqf successfully retook responsibility for ensuring quiet. The intervention was a rare example of this sensitive work of the insider religious mediators being shared with the press that demonstrated how the Religious Peace Initiative was able to help mediate in a crisis situation. This intervention was then strongly criticized by deputy chairman of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Kamal Khatib. He responded to the Ben-Dror Yemini Ynet article describing the work of these insider religious mediators by writing, “It included Sheikh Imad Al- Faluji from Gaza, Dr. Nasser Al-Din Al-Shaer from Nablus, and Sheikhs from the Palestinian interior, whom he did not name (but we know their names). I specifically wish to hear an explanation from Dr. Nasir Al-Din Al-Shaer of the truth of what Rabbi Melchior said.” These accusations about the intervention were later the subject of public discussion and debate in the Palestinian press.

Muslim worshiper praying outside Al-Aqsa (Ynet News, 2017)

It is important to emphasize that the Palestinian – Islamic insider mediators do not only operate in the context of religious peace. In fact, they work primarily to advance intra-Palestinian reconciliation, in particular between Fatah and Hamas. Sheikh Abdullah, with his complex identity and vast connections, had already begun serving as a mediator between the factions as far back as the First Intifada in the late 1980s. For instance in August 1994, Yasser Arafat asked Sheikh Abdullah and his fellow leaders of the Islamic Movement to mediate between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. From the point of view of the Islamic Movement, the aim of this mediation initiative was to bring calm to the conflict between the two sides and also gain legitimacy and recognition from the PLO and from the Islamists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A more recent example of such mediation attempts took place in Cairo in 2012, when Sheikh Abdullah led a delegation with the purpose of advancing reconciliation between the factions. The delegation consisted of prominent personalities from the Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem and Israel. The attendees included Dr. Nasser Al-Din Al-Shaer, Dr. Ali Al- Sartawi, Professor Dr. Abdul Rahman Abbad, Secretary-General of the Council of Scholars and Preachers in Palestine, Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, Head of the Arab Unity Party/Islamic Movement, Sheikh Safwat Fareej, Vice President of the movement, and Sheikh Ra’ed Bader, Director General of the “Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations.”

Delegation of senior Islamic mediators (Cairo,2012)

The Jewish Israeli insider religious mediators (discussed so far) are less invested in the critical work of intra-Jewish Israeli dialogue around peace than their Palestinian counterparts. This includes work between the secular liberal peace oriented worldview and the right wing illiberal religious Zionist worldview. There are, however, several other organizations that are addressing this issue, such as Siach Shalom (Talking Peace), which brings together leaders from the traditional peace camp and rabbis and other ideological leaders from the settlements to talk about their concept of peace. The Citizens Accord Forum facilitated important deliberations about cultivating a language of peace among the religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox rabbinic and lay leadership.

Profiles of Insider Religious Mediators

The following section features the personal profiles of insider religious mediators operating in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each of these insider mediators are considered religious leaders within their communities and several of them have also held political positions in government.

Islamic - Palestinian Insider Religious Mediators

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish (b. Kafr Qasim, 1948, d. 2017) was the religious and political founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel/the Palestinian area of 1948.

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish (b. Kafr Qasim, 1948, d. 2017) was the religious and political founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel/the Palestinian area of 1948.

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish (b. Kafr Qasim, 1948, d. 2017) was the religious and political founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel/ the Palestinian area of 1948. He served as an ‘insider mediator’ through advancing both intra-Palestinian reconciliation and religious peace as co-founder of the Religious Peace Initiative and President of the Adam Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

As a child, he witnessed the massacre at Kafr Qasim which contributed to shaping his political, and national identity, at first as a member of the communist party. Soon after the 1967 war he began studying at the Islamic Institute in Nablus, in the West Bank. There, he became immersed in the teachings and philosophy of modern Islam and in particular Hasan Al-Bana, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon his return to Kafr Qasim in 1971, he began establishing the Islamic Movement and preached throughout the country a religious return to Islam which would put an end to the internal strife and establish a trans-national Islamic caliphate. A few years later, partially inspired by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he founded a small and secretive paramilitary organization called “Usrat al-Jihad” (the family of Jihad), whose goal was to establish an Islamic religious state in Palestine. In 1981, Sheikh Abdullah was arrested with the other members of Usrat al-Jihad and convicted of membership in a terrorist organization. He remained in jail until his release in the Jibril prisoner exchange in 1985. His release from jail in Israel was a turning point in his life, after which he adopted a different ideology concerning the recognition of the State of Israel and the relationship between the Israelis, the Arab residents of Israel and the Palestinians. As an initial but very important step, he returned to operating within the Islamic Movement but resolved that it would operate solely within the laws of the country. He focused on social activities and began to voice his opposition to the involvement of Palestinians of ‘48/ Israeli-Arabs in violence and terrorism much to the surprise of his followers. Sheikh Abdullah led the integration of the Islamic Movement in the country’s municipal political system, which gained significant popular success.

The 1990s breathed further hope in the vision of Sheikh Abdullah and the Islamic Movement. In these years, Sheikh Abdullah decided to increase his involvement in Israeli society and politics and supported the Oslo Accords in 1993. Furthermore, his involvement and recognition of the state institutions became unequivocal with his decision to participate in the 1996 Knesset elections. This bold decision led to a split in the Islamic Movement. Sheikh Abdullah became the leader of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement while members that refused to comply with the changes demanded by him, namely to officially recognize the State of Israel and its institutions, formed the Northern Branch. During these years Sheikh Abdullah also was involved in informal cooperation between insider religious mediators [link to above], in particular with Rabbi Menachem Froman [link]. In 2005, Sheikh Abdullah established the Adam Centers for Dialogue between Civilizations, co-founded “The Religious Peace Initiative” together with Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheikh Imad Faluji.

Video interviewing Sheikh Abdullah in Arabic on i24 News shortly before he passed away in 2017

Sheikh Abdullah’s unique and complex identity and vast connections to conflicting parties both within the Palestinian factions and the most senior Islamic religious leaders in the world as well as among Israelis and leading rabbis, positioned him to be the ideal insider religious mediator. As noted, in numerous instances Sheikh Abdullah served as an insider mediator, helping to advance many discreet and public meetings to advance religious peace. He played an active role in helping to prevent violence in the mixed Jewish –Arab city of Acre in 2008 [link to 2.1.], he denounced terror attacks and was one of the first Islamic leaders to denounce, in writing suicide attacks [link 2.2.] He also denounced anti–Semitism and spoke of the importance of learning about the Holocaust [2.4]. He was constantly involved behind the scenes in attempting to mediate crisis situations in real time [link 3.] such as in the case of Nachson Wachsman in 1994 [link 3.1]. He also was a leader in advancing intra-Palestinian reconciliation [link 3.3.].

Sheikh Abdullah expressed his personal journey in a speech he delivered at the Haaretz Israel Conference for Peace held toward the end of 2015. On that occasion Sheikh Abdullah remarked:

‘Gentlemen, I, Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel. On the way, we also went to the jihad movement, and I sat in prison for it […] And there I thought a lot. Just after I left the prison, I stood in front of all the movement members who came to greet me, and said: Gentlemen, I, your Sheikh, am from now on the first soldier for Peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Gentlemen, I’m not saying I’m the first soldier to make peace because I’m so cowardly, no! I do so because I am strong! Strong in my faith, strong in the deep faith that on this land both peoples should live! The “devil’s” assertion – “either we or you” – should be eradicated. No! The truth is “we and you”, we will live together each in our independent state, and I, the soldier of peace, will remain here, in the State of Israel, to continue making peace with my Jewish religious friends […] Gentlemen, Yitzhak Rabin did not lose. On that day, I saw on TV Arabs and Jews hugging and crying together […] I asked myself – why? I remembered that day they went to Madrid, for the first peace conference, and I saw the Palestinians giving olive leaves to the tankmen, so yes! You can differentiate; you can sow love in hearts instead of hatred if we breathe in the scent of true peace” […].

He concluded by referring to Rabbi Michael Melchior and the activities of the Religious Peace Initiative:

“My brother and friend Rabbi Melchior, we established together the coalition of Jews and Arabs for peace and we founded the Religious Peace Initiative. It is not very different from other initiatives, but we included religion. This in order to say to others: ‘Gone are the days when clerics were the obstacle to peace, we remove the obstacles and those who do not want to participate with us either from among the Muslim or Jewish religious in making peace, so sit on the sidelines and let us pave the way!’ Shalom Aleichem.”

[INSERT IMAGE: Sheikh Abdullah in gathering of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth, 2016.]

Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish speaking at the Haaretz Israel Conference on Peace, November 12, 2015

Sheikh Abdullah in gathering of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Nazareth, 2016

Sheikh Ra’ed Bader

Sheikh Ra’ed Bader (b. Kafr Qasim, 1968) is the senior Islamic authority (Mufti) of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement inside Israeli /the Palestinian area of 1948.

Sheikh Ra’ed Bader

Sheikh Ra’ed Bader (b. Kafr Qasim, 1968) is the senior Islamic authority (Mufti) of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement inside Israeli /the Palestinian area of 1948.

Sheikh Ra’ed Bader (b. Kafr Qasim, 1968) is the senior Islamic authority (Mufti) of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement inside Israel/the Palestinian area of 1948. He is a member of the Ulama Council of Scholars and Preachers in Palestine and a founding member of the Institute of Islamic Rulings and Research for ‘Palestinians of ‘48’/Israeli-Arabs. He holds a BA in Arabic Language and Islamic Law from the College of Islamic Sharia, Baqa Al- Gharbia, and a MA in jurisprudence and legislation from An-Najah National University in Nablus.

In addition, he studied for several years with some of the most senior Islamic scholars in Jordan, Hebron and Nablus. Among his primary teachers were Sheikh Abdullah, Dr. Ali Sirtawi and Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Sha’ar, the latter two of which are leading Islamic authorities in Nablus. Sheikh Ra’ed has published several books and hundreds of Fatwas (Islamic religious rulings), primarily through his two websites and His books and rulings relate to a wide range of topics in Islamic law, including organ donations, marriage and divorce, Bitcoin and the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these religious rulings relate to the complex reality of Muslims living as a minority group within the State of Israel and the Islamic value of human dignity is often a guiding principle. He also served for many years as a lawyer in the Islamic Sharia courts in Israel and is a certified arbitrator and mediator. In addition to serving as a leading religious authority, Sheikh Ra’ed is also the director of the Adam Center for Interreligious Dialogue. Together with his late teacher, Sheikh Abdullah, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, he has served as a senior insider religious mediator advancing the Religious Peace Initiative in the Middle East. In this framework, Sheikh Ra’ed still works to advance today hundreds of discreet meetings a year with senior religious leaders and politicians, both locally and abroad, in efforts to advance religious peace and mitigate crisis situations.

Sheikh Ra’ed has played a leading role in organizing various summits and gatherings that bring together senior religious leaders, such as in Alicante in 2016, as well as in mitigating crisis situations, such as working to prevent outbreaks of violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities and during the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Crisis of 2017. After the murder of the Fogel Family in 2011, Sheikh Ra’ed publicly denounced the murder, an unusual gesture for an Islamic leader. In addition, Sheikh Ra’ed has spoken openly and publicly about nonviolence and religious peace on TV and before audiences at various forums and conferences, such as before the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) on July 18, 2017, during their special session on “The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacebuilding in the Middle East.” Sheikh Ra’ed has also published articles about the Religious Peace Initiative and is currently writing a new Fatwa entitled “Peace in the Holy Land is a Legitimate Necessity and a Human Dignity,” which will advocate for a two-state solution. This book will serve as a historic ruling in support of religious peace with the State of Israel from an Islamic perspective and will address all past.

For research on Sheikh Ra’ed’s most recent activities, see here and here.

Video of Sheikh Ra’ed speaking about religious peace at the UN, 2017

Video of Sheikh Ra’ed Bader speaking about the Religious Peace Initiative, November 2020

Sheikh Imad Faluji

Sheikh Imad Faluji (b. 1963, Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza) is a former politician, engineer, writer and mediator.

Sheikh Imad Faluji

Sheikh Imad Faluji (b. 1963, Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza) is a former politician, engineer, writer and mediator.

Sheikh Imad Faluji (b. 1963, Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza) is a former politician, engineer, writer and mediator. He served first as a leader in Hamas and later, as the Minister of Post and Telecommunications in the Palestinian Authority from 1996 – 2002. Since 2003, Sheikh Imad has served as the chairman of the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations. In 2009, President Mahmud Abbas appointed him as the commission for patronizing Jerusalem and its holy sites. Sheikh Imad is an independent leader in Gaza and is widely accepted by the various Palestinian branches in Gaza and the West Bank as he works to promote intra-Palestinian reconciliation and religious peace. Sheikh Imad studied Islamic law at the Islamic University of Gaza in 1981, and afterwards continued to study civil engineering in Ukraine until 1987. He holds a doctorate in management from the American World University and a certificate of “Leadership and Governance” from Harvard Kennedy School.

Sheikh Imad joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a high school student. Afterwards, he established a student movement in the spirit of the Muslim Brotherhood while studying in the Soviet Union for which he was later expelled by the Soviet authorities back to Gaza. During the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987, he joined the newly-established Hamas. After two years, when much of Hamas’ leadership sat in Israeli jails, he led its activities in Gaza and the West Bank. He, too sat in Israeli jail for his involvement with Hamas between 1991-1994. Upon his release he served as the official spokesman for Hamas. Sheikh Imad nevertheless was careful to maintain good relations with all the Palestinian factions. This earned him a personal meeting with Yasser Arafat – who was considered an outcast in the eyes of Hamas after he signed the Oslo Accords. This later contributed to Sheikh Imad leaving Hamas. Despite this fact, he continued to maintain close ties with both Palestinian factions, allowing him to serve as an insider mediator between them.

Sheikh Imad has also served as an insider mediator in the context of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict through advancing religious peace. Together with Sheikh Abdullah, he helped facilitate a meeting between Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza in 1997. In 2005, he established The Religious Peace Initiative with Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior through which he has helped advance numerous private meetings as well as the Alicante Summit of 2016 and the UN summit in 2017.

Sheikh Imad shared some of his thoughts about religious peace in the framework of the UN special session on July 18, 2017:

We have to understand the importance of the religious element in the souls and the minds of the people of this region. We would be extremely wrong if we believe that peace can be made without realizing religious peace first. Many of the political leaders in the past decades committed gross mistakes when the either ignored or rejected religious colors to participate in the peace process. I believe this was one of the most important factors that contributed to aborting the peace process in the region […] I believe that we were at fault because we failed to discuss the religious peace, the religious men. We were not allowed to play a role, and therefore, the Islamic movements entered everywhere to prove their existence […]

All the other projects failed; the politicians failed. Those who had loud voices – Resistance, the Jihadists – they failed. However, now there is one voice: How can we, the men of faith […] who do not lie, who speak with honesty to people, we, I believe, are the closest to the masses. Therefore, we believe that religion can influence people, let me give you an example: Al-Aqsa Mosque. We stand as a wall against the extremists, preventing them from exploiting what happened in Al-Aqsa Mosque, so that we do not end with a religious mutiny, with a religious rebellion […]

I received all the leaders of Islamic action in Gaza, in all their forms, in all their configurations and I’m in continuous contact with their officials of the Islamic Jihad, of the Salafi Movement in Palestine, of Hamas. Yesterday – yesterday exactly – I told some of the leaders about this conference in which I will be participating today, and they all told me that they would have hoped to participate with us in this conference. They asked me to convey to everyone that the strife, the conflict, in the region was not religious and will not be religious. This strife is not religious. They said that they are not against the Jews nor the Christians as the People of the Book […] They told me that they believe in the ideas that we believe in.

Adam Center FaceBook post of Sheikh Imad meeting with Former head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, August 3, 2019

Video of Sheikh Imad speaking about religious peace at the UN, 2017

Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Sha’ar

Dr. Nasser Al Adin Asha’ar (b. 1961) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a politician.

Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Sha’ar

Dr. Nasser Al Adin Asha’ar (b. 1961) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a politician.

Dr. Nasser Al Adin Asha’ar (b. 1961) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a politician. Since 2016, he has been a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), based in Qatar and currently headed by Sheikh Ahmad al-Raysuni. IUMS serves as the senior religious authority of all branches associated with the Muslim Brotherhood including Hamas. He served as the Deputy Prime Minister under Ismail Haniyeh and as Minister of Education and Higher Education during the Hamas government in 2006 and the unity government in 2007. In late 2019, Dr. Nasser, as a moderate, well-respected Islamist leader, has been discussed in the Palestinian press as a possible consensus presidential candidate that would be accepted by both Hamas and Fatah. Dr. Nasser himself has identified as independent of a particular party affiliation but has worked for years to strengthen Palestinian reconciliation [link 3.3] and has cultivated a vast network of political and religious connections internationally. Dr. Nasser was arrested several times by Israeli authorities, in particular between 2006 – 2012, due to his affiliation with Hamas. Upon his arrest in 2007, when he served as the Minister of Education, Rabbi Melchior [link], who at the time was the Chair of the Education Committee in the Knesset, spoke out against the arrest. He testified the he knew Dr. Nasser well and that he is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, engages in high level inter-religious dialogue and represents the most moderate wing of Hamas while being very close to Abu Mazen. Dr. Nasser has published numerous books on a wide variety of topics, all from an Islamist perspective including on democracy and human rights and religious education. Dr. Nasser expressed his support from an Islamist perspective for a two state solution writing a book in 1998 entitled “The Palestinian – Israeli Peace Process: An Islamic Perspective” [link to pdf book]. Dr. Nasser allegedly played an important role as an insider mediator both with regards to the Temple Mount crisis of 2017 [link 3.2] and in Sheikh Qaradawi’s decision to change his opinion regarding suicide attacks [link 2.2].

On July 19, 2017 Dr. Nasser spoke over video conference at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) as part of a special session on The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacebuilding in the Middle East:

All sane people are called today to work to build a secure future for our future generations and stand firmly against continued conflicts in the world. As part of the audience today was religious leaders, this necessitated that they have a noticeable and effective role in highlighting the ability of religion to prevail over love, peace and human coexistence. And since the propaganda wave in many countries of the world seeks to associate violence with religion and hold it responsible for hatred in the world, it has become imperative for clerics to shed light on the true image of religion as the Creator’s message to save humanity and its guidance and leadership towards goodness, love and stability. We must stop holding religion responsible for the violence, conflict and hatred that is taking place in the world…. I am addressing you now from the Holy Land in which God blessed the worlds with the holy text of his book and from which heavenly religions have sprung up to the whole world.”

Dr. Nasser went on to also speak about the need to end the occupation and arrive at a just peace.

“On top of all this is the occupation, which is spoiling all aspects of our lives. Rather, it is destroying our soul from within and insulting ourselves. Today, all of us in this world are required to join hands in the name of religion, politics, thought, logic and law to end this bitter struggle.”

Article published in English Al-Monitor, December 29, 2019

Video of Dr. Nasser speaking about religious peace at the UN, 2017

Dr. Ali al-Sartawi

Sheikh Dr. Ali al-Sartawi (born 1967 in Sarta) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a former politician, having served as Minister of Justice on behalf of Hamas in the national unity government of the Palestinian National Authority in 2007.

Dr. Ali al-Sartawi

Sheikh Dr. Ali al-Sartawi (born 1967 in Sarta) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a former politician, having served as Minister of Justice on behalf of Hamas in the national unity government of the Palestinian National Authority in 2007.

Sheikh Dr. Ali al-Sartawi (born 1967 in Sarta) is a senior Palestinian Islamic authority, a professor of Islamic Law at An-Najah University in Nablus and a former politician, having served as Minister of Justice on behalf of Hamas in the national unity government of the Palestinian National Authority in 2007. Dr. Ali received his PhD in Islamic Law from the University of Jordan in 1997. He has written extensively as a religious and academic scholar on a wide range of topics, including labor law, banking, constitutional law and human rights. As a senior Islamic authority with very close ties to both Hamas and Fatah, he has often served as an insider mediator between them working to advance Palestinian reconciliation [link 3.3.]. Dr. Ali is Sheikh Ra’ed Bader’s [link] former thesis advisor and close friend and has written acknowledgments in many of Sheikh Ra’ed’s books and fatwas. Since the establishment of The Religious Peace Initiative, Dr. Ali has worked closely with Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Ra’ed and Rabbi Melchior in helping to advance the religious peace, attending numerous discreet meetings between senior religious leaders and working to educate a whole generation of Islamic scholars and imams to follow in this path.

While Dr. Ali has been very discreet about his involvement in helping to advance religious peace he has noted in an interview that “it is dangerous to talk to rabbis but I’m convinced it is good for the two sides. We can’t build peace with the political side only. I don’t have any problems with Jewish people on the Israeli side. I respect the Jewish religion. But if fundamentalists grow on both sides, I will be afraid.”

On August 25, 2020, Dr. Ali gave a talk to religious leaders and educators in the framework of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace about his involvement and commitment to religious peace. Dr. Ali told of how he wondered in the past if there are religious Israelis who are interested in peace. The following is what he told regarding his connection Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Ra’ed and Rabbi Melchior:

I had Arab students with Israeli citizenship that lived in Israeli society. And I raised my question to them…. And then I was surprised: suddenly, a student from the Palestinians of ’48 (Israeli Arab) said the ideas I raised were already raised tens of years earlier by someone in Kafr Qasim called Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, and he doesn’t see them as a political issue rather believes in complete faith that there is backing for them in Scripture. Afterwards I began to know one of the people closest to him, who was himself a student of mine: Sheikh Ra’ed Bader. This is how my connection to Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish began …. We began meeting together, and I asked him are there any religious Jews on the Israeli side that believe in complete faith, that we, as religious people, would support peace? If so let’s establish an Initiative. And then he told me about Rabbi Melchior….

The image that we had that was prevalent in the media that those who want peace and that are likely to agree to a position of peace, are the (secular) left, while with regards to the religious there is no hope of peace, that they don’t believe in peace, that this land is holy for them and that there is no possibility that all of it will be theirs. With regards to the Palestinian – Israeli Conflict, it is known to all, that the politicians on both sides started the process. The role of religion was secondary, and this was despite the fact that the conflict both from the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, exist religious elements. … Religious peace is what will ensure continuity. Peace will not be built between the governments. We want peace between the people. We want peace that will turn Israel and the Jews into a normal state in the region: it is not a positive matter that Israel should continue to be known as an occupier of another nation over time.”

Picture of Dr. Ali al-Sartawi from his FaceBook

Jewish -Israeli Insider Religious Mediators

Rabbi Menachem Froman

Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2013) was rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and taught in various religious Zionist yeshivas.

Rabbi Menachem Froman

Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2013) was rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and taught in various religious Zionist yeshivas.

Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2013) was rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and taught in various religious Zionist yeshivas. He was a staunch supporter of the West Bank settlements and at the same time an indefatigable religious peacebuilder. He was born to a family of Holocaust survivors. Both his parents grew up as Gerer Hasidim, but on arrival in Israel, they abandoned that path. Rabbi Froman grew up attending the secular Reali school in Haifa and a left wing, secular youth movement Hanoar Haoved Velomed. He studied Jewish and general philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but abandoned his studies as he became more religious and began attending the primary religious Zionist yeshiva, Yeshivat Mercaz Harav. He fought as a soldier in the 1967 Six Day War as well as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After the Six Day War, he married Hadassah and studied with great intensity at Yeshivat HaKotel and the Itri Yeshiva; gaining ordination as a rabbi. He then moved to serve as rabbi of Kibbutz Migdal Oz and then of the city of Tekoa. Both places are located on the West Bank.

Rabbi Froman was among the founders of the religious Zionist settlement movement, Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) and sat on its secretariat. He helped establish ten settlements. This was usually done illegally and under the cover of darkness. Yet, despite his belief that the return of the Jewish people to its land was part of the messianic process, he was troubled by how the Palestinians fitted into this narrative: “Is the Palestinian presence here God’s mistake?” His conclusion was that this was all part of God’s plan and that part of the messianic redemption process was for Jews and Muslim, Israelis and Palestinians to make peace in the Holy Land. Rabbi Froman related years later that already in 1991 he had begun meeting with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (1937 – 2004) who, at the time, was sitting in jail in Israel. He was one of the first religious leaders to serve as an insider mediator in the context of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict. He informally cooperated with Sheikh Abdullah already in the 1990s working to advance cease fires between Israel and Hamas as well as the release of hostages, such as IDF soldier, Nachshon Wachsman. Rabbi Froman participated in the Alexandria Summit of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land in 2002 as well as many of the follow-up gatherings. He worked tirelessly to connect Jewish and Islamic religious leaders as well as politicians to the concept of religious peace, often reaching out to them through letters. He was also often the first religious leader to respond and denounce any act of violence against Palestinians or Islamic holy sites, such as the burning of mosques. In addition to his own activity as an insider religious mediator, Rabbi Froman made numerous efforts to establish religious peace movements. Since his passing, an organization dedicated to his vision of grassroots West Bank religious peacebuilding has been established by his followers, his widow, Rabbanit Hadassah Froman, and his children, called Roots-Shorashim-Judur. Several West Bank, religious Zionist rabbis continue in Rabbi Froman’s path, each bringing in their own creativity in advancing religious peace. They include Rabbi Yackov Nagen, a rabbi at Yeshivat Otniel in the southern hills of Hebron, who has been very active in interreligious dialogue and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen the co-director of Amanah, advancing religious peace between Jews and Muslims in Malmo, Sweden.

Video of Rabbi Froman speaking [in Hebrew] about religious peace shortly before he passed away in 2013

Rabbi Michael Melchior

Rabbi Michael Melchior (b. 1954, Copenhagen) is a former Israeli MK and Cabinet Minister, the Chief Rabbi of Norway, and head of the religious court of all of Scandinavia, the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and the founder and president of several NGOs.

Rabbi Michael Melchior

Rabbi Michael Melchior (b. 1954, Copenhagen) is a former Israeli MK and Cabinet Minister, the Chief Rabbi of Norway, and head of the religious court of all of Scandinavia, the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and the founder and president of several NGOs.

Rabbi Michael Melchior (b. 1954, Copenhagen) is a former Israeli MK and Cabinet Minister, the Chief Rabbi of Norway, and head of the religious court of all of Scandinavia, the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and the founder and president of several NGOs. He was born in Denmark, a descendant of seven generations of Danish rabbis. He studied at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem where he was ordained in 1980. He served as rabbi of the synagogue in Oslo. In 1986, he returned to Israel to make Jerusalem his home with his family.

In 1999, Rabbi Melchior was elected to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) as a representative of the Meimad Party, taking up senior roles in the heart of government which he held for a decade under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. He was Deputy Foreign Minister, Deputy Minister for Education and Deputy Minister for Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community. During this time, he sat in the security cabinet, and chaired many Knesset committees including: The Committee for Education and Culture (2006-2009), The Knesset Caucus for the Environment and The Knesset Caucus for Jewish-Arab Relations (2003-2009).

Since leaving Knesset in 2009, Rabbi Melchior has dedicated his attention to Melchior Social Initiatives, the NGOs which he had founded. These include Meitarim; a network of over 100 pluralistic Jewish schools and communities in Israel, The Citizens’ Accord Forum which promotes the building of bridges of coexistence and justice between Israeli Jews and Israeli-Arabs and Mosaica’s Religious Peace Initiative [link to new website], which actively works to build a religious peace between leaders of all religions in the Middle East.

Rabbi Melchior, while having supported the various political peace processes, has also long criticized them for not properly including religious leaders in the process. He was one of the primary organizers of the Alexandria Summit of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land in 2002 as well as the Alicante Summit of Religious Leaders for Peace in the Middle East in 2016. In 2005 he established the Religious Peace Initiative together with Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish and Sheikh Imad Faluji. Rabbi Melchior has initiated and participated in hundreds of meetings with religious and political leaders as part of advancing religious peace. He has worked hard to prevent and respond to violence such as in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel as well as helping to facilitate the religious rulings against suicide attacks. He is often the first religious leader to respond and denounce acts of violence done against Arabs and Palestinians, or Muslims. Rabbi Melchior has also been involved in discreetly mediating crisis situations in real time such as the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa crisis of 2017.

Rabbi Melchior speaking about The Religious Peace Initiative, November 2020

In the Press

Rabbanit Adina bar Shalom

Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom (b. 1945) is the daughter of one of the greatest Sephardi scholars and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013).

Rabbanit Adina bar Shalom

Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom (b. 1945) is the daughter of one of the greatest Sephardi scholars and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013).

Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom (b. 1945) is the daughter of one of the greatest Sephardi scholars and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013). She created the Haredi College, a pioneering institution enabling Ultra-Orthodox Jews to gain higher education for which she received Israel’s highest award, the Israel Prize, for her pioneering work. Her father famously ruled that in order to prevent bloodshed, it was permitted to hand over territory in return for peace, a ruling that led her on a path to work towards advancing religious peace. Rabbanit Adina co-directs a women’s group of leading ultra-Orthodox Jewish women and Islamic Movement women, many of whom are connected to the senior Islamic insider religious mediators. She claims that her father supported her approach and she sometimes acted as an insider mediator serving as a conduit between him and Palestinian and Muslim leaders. For example, she once joined a delegation of insider religious mediators, including Rabbi Froman, Rabbi Melchior and Sheikh Abdullah, in visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, carrying a letter from her father. Rabbanit Adina was one of the religious leaders who presented at the UN in 2017 on The Role of Religious Leaders in Peacebuilding in the Middle East. There, she spoke of the importance of reigniting hope in the peace process among the peoples and their leadership.

Video of Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom speaking about religious peace at the UN, 2017

Rabbi Avi Gisser

Rabbi Avi Gisser (b. 1954, Bnei Brak) is rabbi of the West Bank religious Zionist settlement of Ofra.

Rabbi Avi Gisser

Rabbi Avi Gisser (b. 1954, Bnei Brak) is rabbi of the West Bank religious Zionist settlement of Ofra.

Rabbi Avi Gisser (b. 1954, Bnei Brak) is rabbi of the West Bank religious Zionist settlement of Ofra. In 2000, he cofounded Machon Mishpatei Eretz Yisrael (Institute for the Study of the Laws of the Land of Israel, which trains rabbinic judges and carries out scholarly research in Jewish law. Since 2004, Rabbi Gisser has served as Chairman of the State Religious Education Council which oversees thousands of religious Zionist schools throughout the country. He is a member of Takana; a forum of senior religious leaders dealing with sexual harassment in the Jewish religious community. In 2019, he stood for election to head the Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party, but was defeated by Rabbi Rafi Peretz.. Rabbi Gisser studied at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav under the personal tutelage of the head of yeshiva and the spiritual father of the settlement movement Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982). Rabbi Gisser holds two BA degrees: one in education and one in law. He is a qualified lawyer and mediator. He also holds a teacher’s certificate. Rabbi Gisser is married to Rabbanit Dr. Yaffa Gisser, a lecturer at Herzog and Ono Academic Colleges, who has also played an active role in advancing religious peace.

Rabbi Gisser is a member of the steering committee of the Religious Peace Initiative, and is a strong believer that true peace can only be made by religious leaders in this conflict. He has participated in every major gathering and event since its inception, including Alicante in 2016 [link] and the UN in 2017 [link to 1.2]. He also played a significant role in past Mosaica educational programs that sought to connect religious Zionists and Islamic Movement teachers and schools.

Video of Rabbi Gisser speaking about religious peace at the UN, 2017.