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Could Charedim deliver peace?

    Eli Yishai: resolutely right-wing
    Eli Yishai: resolutely right-wing

    The dictatorships of the Middle East have long repressed religious Islamic parties, imprisoned their leaders and forbidden them from participating in elections.

    The first relatively free elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have seen major gains by Islamist parties, which are suddenly facing the challenge of participating in government with all the consequent compromises.

    This has led to muddled and often conflicting statements from various Islamist spokesmen. We have heard that Jews are welcome to return to Tunisia and that Egypt's peace treaty with Israel is secure - and the opposite. It has also given rise to tantalising speculation that the best chance for an engagement between Israel and the "new" Arab world could be through Israel's own religious fundamentalists: Charedi political parties.

    Quiet talks between Charedi politicians - mainly from the Sephardi Shas party - and Arab politicians have been going on for years. The Geneva Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO, has been organising these meetings over the past decade. The aim has been to promote a two-state solution. "The talks have been very cordial," said a Shas participant, "and we find that when we sit with them across the table, we have a lot in common in matters of faith and tradition in a modern and secular world. But when it gets down to politics and the specifics of a peace plan, there still is a chasm between us. All the same, I think this could be an effective channel of engagement."

    In an interview with the Economist this month, Yaakov Mergui, Shas's religious affairs minister, said: "Men of religion understand each other better, I am ready to meet the Muslim Brotherhood any time, any place."

    "It's a fantastic idea that could have great potential but I can't really see it getting off the ground," said one Israeli NGO official who has been involved in meetings between Shas members and Hamas-affiliated Sheikhs. "They have been meeting for over 10 years in different countries in Europe but, at the base, Shas in not interested in foreign policy. They won't go out on a limb for a diplomatic initiative."

    While the majority of Shas's voters are resolutely right-wing, as are many of its politicians, including party chairman, interior minister Eli Yishai, the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadya Yossef is more of a moderate. In the late 1970s, he pioneered the concept of "pikuach nefesh is more important than Eretz Yisrael" (the sanctity of life precedes territorial concerns).

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