As Secular Peace Effort Stutters in Israel, Religious Mediators Hope to Step In

The inclusion of an Islamist party in Israel’s government has spurred a group of imams and rabbis hoping to build a religious-based peace movement.

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JERUSALEM — The rabbi stood before the grave of the imam, weeping as he gave his eulogy. In life, Rabbi Michael Melchior said, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish had promised him that he would never leave his side. In death, the sheikh had left him feeling as bereft as an orphan.

Sheikh Abdullah died in 2017, four years before the Islamist party he helped found, Raam, became the first independent Arab faction to join an Israeli government coalition. But the sheikh’s funeral and his unlikely friendship with Rabbi Melchior, as well as their below-the-radar attempts at religious-based peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, were all part of an unexpected, decades-long back story of an effort by some Islamists to find a place within Israeli politics.

For Mansour Abbas, a politician standing in tears to the rabbi’s right that day, the sheikh’s death was one of several pivotal way stations in his journey to lead Raam into Israel’s government.

“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and Rabbi Melchior’s speech, it hit me — that I need to be committed to Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior’s joint approach,” said Mr. Abbas, who became Raam’s leader in 2018 and entered Parliament two years ago. The speech and the funeral “made me go from being a supporter and minor contributor to it to someone wishing to strengthen it and push it forward,” he said.

To some unaware of Sheikh Abdullah’s teachings, Mr. Abbas’s entrance into government in June was a surprise.

A political party led by Arab citizens of Israel had not formally joined an Israeli government since the 1970s. Tensions between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel were at their highest in years after days of violent clashes in May. And Israel had just ended a brief war with Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in the Gaza Strip.

Both Raam and Hamas have roots in the same Islamist movement. And Raam’s leading influence, Sheikh Abdullah, was convicted and imprisoned in the 1980s for links to a militant Islamist group.

To those in and around Raam, its new role makes more sense in the context of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual journey since he left jail, when he had an ideological about-face and sought to use Islamic teachings to justify a more peaceful approach.

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“At Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and Rabbi Melchior’s speech, it hit me — that I need to be committed to Sheikh Abdullah and Rabbi Melchior’s joint approach,” said Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Raam’s participation in government is partly the result of specific circumstances — a personal decision by its leader, Mr. Abbas, to seek more political leverage to help Arab communities overcome entrenched gang violence and win better housing rights. And it was made possible by Benjamin Netanyahu, then the prime minister, who helped legitimize the idea of Arab participation in government by pursuing Raam’s support.

To Mr. Abbas’s critics within Arab society, it was a problematic and transactional act that grants power and legitimacy to hard-right allies in government in exchange for only small concessions to Arabs.

But it gave hope to Rabbi Melchior and one of Sheikh Abdullah’s spiritual successors, Sheikh Raed Bader, who are fighting to restore momentum to a formal peace process that petered out in 2014. To them, Mr. Abbas’s political maneuver was a natural outgrowth of a long-term project of religious-based peace building begun by Sheikh Abdullah.

“My sheikh went through several stations in his life,” said Sheikh Raed, citing Sheikh Abdullah’s break with militance after leaving prison in the 1980s.

“The whole religious dialogue,” Sheikh Raed said, “started from that point.”

Born in 1948 in an Arab town in what became Israel, Sheikh Abdullah flirted briefly with Communism as a young man before turning more seriously to Islam.

In the 1970s, he founded the Islamic Movement, a group based in Israel that aimed to encourage the Muslim minority to deepen its faith and, ultimately, to create a society governed by Islamic law. The group also had a militant wing that carried out arson attacks on Israeli property.

But in the 1980s, he surprised his followers by pushing to establish better relations between Arabs and Israelis, within both Israel and the occupied territories.

In the 1990s, Sheikh Abdullah was involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations between Hamas and Israel, and later gave his blessing to the participation of the Islamic Movement’s political wing, later known as Raam, in Israeli parliamentary elections. That caused a split in the movement, with some members forming a now banned splinter group that rejected participation in the Israeli parliamentary process.

But Sheikh Abdullah continued on a path of moderation, writing a book that rejected any religious justification for suicide attacks. He also began to work on several peace-building projects with Rabbi Melchior, then a deputy foreign minister in the Israeli government.

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Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, right, in 2007 with Shimon Peres, then the president of Israel, at a traditional Iftar meal in Jerusalem.Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

Born in Denmark in 1954, Rabbi Melchior was, at first glance, an unlikely partner for Sheikh Abdullah. The rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem and a member of the Israeli security cabinet, he was a lifelong Zionist who believed that the return of Jews to Israel was the fulfillment of a divine plan.

But when they sat together, the pair fundamentally saw each other as two religious equals united by a shared respect for the other’s theology, Rabbi Melchior said. And to the rabbi, that gave them the ability to engage more constructively than secular Israeli and Palestinian politicians who have an implicit power imbalance.

“A staunch Islamist who was one of the great decision makers of the Islamic world,” Rabbi Melchior said. “And this staunch Zionist, who’s been in the Israeli cabinet for years, and whose children and grandchildren are officers in these elite units in the Israel Defense Forces. How can we be that close? How can we end each other’s sentences?”

According to Rabbi Melchior, it was because they looked each other in the eye, and thought: “We’re more and more on the same side.”

At the height of the second major Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against the Israeli occupation in 2002, the two men helped organize a major meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, including rabbis, imams and Christian clerics. It resulted in a joint declaration from representatives of the three religions denouncing murder in the name of God and pledging a joint quest for peace.

With several colleagues, including Sheikh Raed, the two men also set up a network of religious imams and rabbis in Israel to help ease tense periods. Among many little-known projects, the network made back-channel efforts in 2008 to avoid communal violence in the city of Acre, in northern Israel.

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In 2014, they coordinated to avoid religious violence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities when the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, fell on the same day as the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, and tried to taper conflict during a low-level intifada the next year.

Mr. Abbas became involved in the initiatives and later developed a close relationship with Rabbi Melchior, speaking with him several times a month.

To the rabbi, these religious-based peace initiatives offered a way to move on from the secular-led diplomatic efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, which he said failed in part because they did not sufficiently include religious elements from the two populations.

“The traditional and religious population felt that the peace was part of the uprooting of what they felt was their sense of belonging, of their DNA, of their identity, of their narrative,” Rabbi Melchior said.

After Sheikh Abdullah’s death, Sheikh Raed took up his mantle. He worked with Rabbi Melchior to defuse another crisis in 2017, when the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem almost set off another uprising.

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Sheikh Raed Bader, a follower and spiritual successor of Sheikh Abdullah, at his office in Kafr Qasim, Israel.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

In 2020, Sheikh Raed released a lengthy religious tract that provided a theological justification for Raam’s joining an Israeli government. Several months later, Mr. Abbas joined the current governing coalition.

During the coalition negotiations, Mr. Abbas gave a televised speech in Hebrew, largely pitched at Israeli Jews, in which he called for coexistence and presented himself as a citizen of Israel. Analysts later said it played a pivotal role in positioning him as an acceptable partner for Jewish-led parties. The speech was his own, but he spoke beforehand with Rabbi Melchior about its content, both men said.

To some Palestinian citizens of Israel, Mr. Abbas is a sellout for helping put right-wing Jewish politicians in power in exchange for what critics perceive as only token victories.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the left-wing party Hadash, said Mr. Abbas’s approach was transactional, positioning Palestinian citizens of Israel as servants and subjects instead of as true citizens with collective rights.

“I don’t want to work as a politician under a Jewish supremacy,” said Mr. Odeh, whose party includes a mix of Arabs and Jews. “I fight for deep equality on both a civil and national level between the two peoples.”

But to advocates like Sheikh Raed and Rabbi Melchior, Mr. Abbas’s decision was a hopeful byproduct of a long process of religious peace-building that seeks to place Palestinians and Israelis on a more equal footing, and which political leaders would do well to amplify.

“If the religious element is not inside the peace camp, and not included fully, it just won’t happen,” Rabbi Melchior said. “I, for one, do not want to exclude the secular — not from our society and not from the peacemaking,” he added. “I just want to expand that sense of peace.”

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