The war that may soon break out between the Israelis and the Palestinians will no more be a narrowly religious war than the civil strife in Northern Ireland has been a "sectarian conflict." In Northern Ireland, the contending groups are properly called "Unionist" and "Nationalist," not "Protestant" and "Catholic." Neither side wants to stamp out the other's religion or convert the other. Neither side makes a practice of attacking the other side's places of worship or clergy. Their fight has not been about religion but about sovereignty, not about whether Northern Ireland will be Protestant or Catholic but about whether or to what extent it will be British or Irish. If the sovereignty question can be amicably resolved, then Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland will live in religious peace as easily as their counterparts do both in Britain and in Ireland.

In Israel/Palestine, the fight, in a similar way, is not about whether the land will be Jewish or Muslim but about whether it will be Israeli or Palestinian. The term "Israeli," a Hebrew adjective that does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, was coined by the secular founders of modern Israel to detach Jewish ethnicity from Jewish religious belief. In the state they created, Jewish Israelis still constitute a legally privileged group, but Arab Israelis, Christian Israelis, Circassian Israelis, Druze Israelis, Samaritan Israelis, non-Jewish non-believing Russian Israelis, and various others are all citizens. The term "Palestinian" is even less defined by religion. Muslim Palestinians constitute the majority, but the nation includes a substantial minority of Christian Palestinians, who are further subdivided into Arab Orthodox Catholics, Greek Orthodox Catholics, and a few Roman Catholics and Protestants, principally Anglicans. Until recently, no Arab "nation" was less religious or more cosmopolitan than the Palestinians.

Secular, atheist peoples, alas, are perfectly capable of going to war with each other. If both the State of Israel and the perhaps soon-to-be-declared State of Palestine were 100% atheist, violent strife between them would still be likely. Thirty years ago, Golda Meir said, notoriously, "There are no Palestinians." What she meant was not that the Arabs who called themselves by that name did not exist but that they lacked sufficient ethnic cohesion to constitute a true nation. Her opinion, widely shared in Israel, reflected the vain hope that the Palestinian Arabs might somehow fade away into the rest of the Arab world. In much the same way, when militant Palestinians "denied Israel's right to exist," they did not intend the extermination of the people in question. They simply entertained the comparably vain hope that the rest of the Jewish world could be forced to absorb Israel's Jews.

The radical, mutual rejection in these mirror-image political visions is happily not what it once was. Thirty years from the time (roughly the Six Days War) when those views were current, the Palestinians have come to terms with the Israeli state, and the Israelis are on the verge of doing the same with a Palestinian state. But on what terms? There's the rub, and we delude ourselves if we suppose that fanatical, religion-based attachment to a few contested shrines such as the Temple Mount or the Western Wall is all that stands in the path of peace. True, when ultra-orthodox Jews and militant Muslims strive to de-secularize Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, they make things worse. But too much attention to such atavistic minorities lets the contending secular majorities off the hook and obscures the fact that the sovereignty question in all its complexity-a secular question but just the sort of question that has ignited wars so often in the past-remains radically unresolved.

Essentially, Israel can resolve this question in only two ways. It can give the Palestinians enough land and related powers to be functionally sovereign on their own territory, or it can offer them citizenship in an Israel as undivided as Israel now insists Jerusalem must be. As a young Palestinian once put it, "They must either divorce us or marry us." If Israel does neither, then it must resign itself to a national career as permanent occupying power, a role that-like Britain in Ireland-it may play for centuries without suffering an outright defeat but only at steadily escalating spiritual and material cost. Divorce-giving the Palestinians what they need to form a viable state-has seemed so much better an option than marriage that, to some on both sides, it has been spoken of as virtually inevitable. Unfortunately, it is anything but inevitable.

I say this because "land for peace" is shorthand for a complex agenda of questions. Will expropriated Palestinian property-owners be allowed to sue for compensation in Israeli courts? Will they be allowed to immigrate to Israel if they wish? What sort of matching provision will be made for "Jewish Palestinians," Jewish settlers living under Palestinian sovereignty? How should the water of the Jordan River be apportioned? What sort of extradition agreement will obtain between the two new entities? What sort of transit rights will obtain? Who will control the lucrative tourism assets of Jerusalem?

These questions are no fun to read about, but it was over such questions rather than over anything colorfully religious that, by all reports, the negotiations at Camp David broke down. Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak are not honored as sages in their respective religions. The two of them are thoroughly secular leaders, leather-skinned survivors facing relentless and even murderous rivals at home, and the issues between them are as just as tough, just as durable, and just as secular as they are.

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