For the past many years, Israeli control over Jerusalem has been used to effectively exclude most Muslims living in Gaza or the West Bank from steady access to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Sanctimoniously proclaiming their non-negotiable insistence on "eternal" control of Jerusalem--and remembering when Jews were excluded from the Western Wall by Arab authorities--Israeli political leaders seem equally determined to exercise arbitrary power over that holy place.
Don't blame this on religion. It's the secular leaders Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami who provided the massive military backup for the incendiary visit of Likud's secular leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. Most religious leaders forbid their followers to even go up to the Temple Mount until the Messiah comes and the Temple is rebuilt. Would that Sharon heeded their words. He wasn't going to serve God--but to provoke conflict to advance his perception of Israeli nationalist interests.
If Barak truly wanted to negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians, he could have given them sovereignty over the Temple Mount while retaining access to the Western Wall. Worried about stones? Build a strong supportive net over the plaza to catch any flying objects. Worried about a future moment when the Messiah's return would allow Jews to rebuild the Temple? The agreement could have contained a clause assuring that negotiations would be reopened when the Messiah comes--when the lion lies down with the lamb and everyone beats their swords into plowshares, as the Bible defines the messianic era.
To be sure, there are religious extremists on both sides with irreconcilable and non-negotiable demands that could only be met by destroying the other side. And in fact, it is the macho, outdated notion of sovereignty (rooted in 19th century nationalist aspirations) among both Palestinians and Israelis that has shaped this conflict. Yet the biblical God supposedly respected by both sides make unequivocally clear that no one has a right to the Holy Land.
Over and over again, the Torah states that one can live and create a society in the Holy Land only if one is living a life in accord with the highest ethical values of justice and "loving the stranger." The very ownership of the Promised Land was forbidden, "because the entire earth is mine," says the Eternal One of Israel.
Even in biblical days, there were nationalists who heard God's voice in a different and more chauvinistic way. And to straighten them out, the prophet Isaiah heard God talking about the future of the Temple Mount this way: "My house [the Temple] shall be a house of prayer for all nations."
Both peoples, therefore, need to atone for having abandoned the revolutionary message of love that underlies both Judaism and Islam, instead twisting their religion to fit their own power-oriented proclivities. Jews have been victims so long they can never allow themselves to recognize when they act as oppressors. And Palestinians sometimes seem more interested in preserving their victim status than in working out a viable solution.
Here is how each side might start their atonement process: Palestinians might realize and acknowledge to themselves that violence is morally wrong, and that it will not succeed in winning them the full independence they most desire. Could any plausible outcome to a new outburst of violence possibly be worth the life of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah?
Palestinians need to atone for not ever having seriously attempted massive nonviolent civil disobedience. Had they met Sharon with offers of tea and dialogue, had they met police violence with massive nonviolent sit-downs, they would have immensely strengthened the hand of those within Israel who want a total end to all forms of occupation.
Palestinians should also atone for their failure to acknowledge that Jews have for 2,000 years longed to return to their ancient homeland and to worship at the Western Wall, which is part of the Temple Mount. Acknowledging Jews' claim to the land would go a long way toward making possible the reconciliation that is the only hope for peace.
Israelis should atone for never having acknowledged their responsibility for expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians during the War of Independence in 1948. Israelis should atone for being unwilling to hear the stories of a people whose fate resembles pre-20th-century Jewish life in exile.