Yesterday four Israeli settlers (including a pregnant woman) were gunned down by Hamas gunmen in the West Bank. Naturally, the world has focused on how the atrocity is likely timed to derail US-sponsored peace talks aimed at ending the current stalemate. A few commentators have gone on to dwell upon the significance of a Hamas attack in Fatah-controlled West Bank (the Hamas-Fatah rivalry is a major faultline running through Palestinian politics). Yet once again we hear very little about another major feature of this crisis, namely its thoroughly theological nature. I don't know much about the settlers who were murdered, but we do know they come from the Hebron area, which has attracted some of the most religious of Jewish settlers seeking to reclaim land for theological reasons. Meanwhile, just several days ago Rabbia Ovadia Josef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic political party Shas, expressed the hope in a sermon that the Palestinian president and any Palestinian who persecutes Israel would be struck down by God. For their part, the perpetrators of the slaughter of the four settlers - Hamas - are likewise driven by a strong theological agenda: the total annihilation of the Jewish state and recapture of Muslim land. Israel's northern neighbour Hezbollah, of course, takes a similar line, as does Iran's presient Ahmadinejad.
In short, despite the views of secularists such as Netanyahu, Abbas, Obama, Cameron and the EU that they can somehow make a difference, this is a thoroughly theological conflict for which there can surely be no wholly secular solution. At a conference exploring the conference last year I made precisely this point, only to be told confidently by a civil servant that once politics and diplomacy could get a foothold , once the necessary bait had been dangled and suitably pragmatic agenda (together with ensuing benefits and pay-offs) set out, the conflict could eventually be solved. I'm not so sure. Indeed, I think such a view is as short-sighted as that expressed by some Christians, who seem to think that a purely ethically-driven approach (much like the materialist, this-worldly views espoused by liberal Protestants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) will somehow yield results and bring the conflict to an end. Perhaps, with the diammetrically-opposed theological views of major players on all sides, the pragmatic approach is to concede there may never really be a full resolution of this conflict after all.