Amy Dockser Marcus, "In Mideast Politics, Controlling the Past is a Key to the Present" WALL STREET JOURNAL, Sept 30 1996.

JERUSALEM: For years, the main battle in the Middle East has been over land. Now it is over the past.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often cites Abraham's biblical connection to Hebron as one reason his government is determined to maintain a Jewish presence in the predominantly Muslim West Bank city. In response, the Palestinian Authority has begun promoting the notion that the Palestinians are the modern-day successors to the Canaanites, who lived there long before Abraham ever showed up.

"This is no longer just a political dispute over who controls cities like Hebron or Jerusalem," says Marwan Abu Khalaf, director of the Institute of Islamic Archaeology in Jerusalem. "Both the Israelis and Palestinians are determined to prove that their ancestors lived here first."

Whether it is Americans converging on Plymouth Rock or the British celebrating at the ruins of Stonehenge, the idea of connecting modern populations to the symbols of the past is a common impulse. But in the Middle East, few of the region's modern states have existed much more than 70 years and most are the product of borders drawn up by colonial powers. The waning of pan-Arab nationalism, with its exclusive focus on the region's Arab past, has resulted in today's leaders increasinly looking for inspiration and roots in an even earlier time -- to the ancient empires and peoples described in the Bible.

The frequent intertwining of the daily and the divine is proving a volatile mix, especially in a region with so many political conflicts.

Last week's gun battles between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that left more than 70 people dead reflect broad Palestinian frustration with stalled peace talks and the new Israeli government's hard-line policies. But the riots were touched off by an Israeli decision to open a new gate to a biblical underground tunnel that runs close to the Temple Mount area, a site considered holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Mr. Netanyahu said the tunnel offers "contact with the rock of" Jewish existence 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. But Mr. Arafat said that the move was part of a broader Israeli effort to "Judaize Jerusalem" at the expense of Muslim religious claims in the city.

Yesterday, President Clinton announced he would hold a summit in Washington early this week between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. King Hussein of Jordan has agreed to attend. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been invited.

"Historical-Period Costume"

The phenomenon isn't confined to Israelis and Palestinians alone. All across the region, says U.S. archaeological historian Neil Asher Silberman, "we are seeing people acting out modern political agendas decked out in historical-period costume."

Take Syria's President Hafez Assad. He likes to seat foreign visitors in front of an ancient mosaic he had restored and installed in a reception room in his palace. The archaeological find portrays the 1187 battle when Salah al Din -- who once ruled from his imperial seat in ancient Syria -- defeated the Christian armies of the Crusaders, forcing their retreat from the Holy Land. In speeches, Mr. Assad frequently cites the example of Salah al din as support for the hard-line approach he has taken in his dealings with the Israelis, who he views as latter-day Crusaders.

At the height of his recent military confrontation with the U.S. over the Iraqi army's push into the northern Kurdish enclave, Saddam Hussein made sure his top brass showed up at this month's Babylon Festival. The annual celebration is part of the Iraqi leader's effort to portray himself as the modern-day successor of King Nebuchadnezzar, whose biblical empire stretched from Kuwait to Israel. Saddam Hussein has used bricks stamped with his name and the seal of Iraq in the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's ancient palace in Babylon, 60 miles south of Baghdad. He cited the claim that Nebuchadnezzar's father was an ancient tribal leader in what is now Kuwait as further justification for Iraq's 1991 invasion of that country.

"It's not that the Middle East's leaders are suddenly big believers in the Bible or avid readers of history books," says Efraim Karsh, a professor at King's College at the University of London and author of a political biography of Saddam Hussein. "The obsession with the past is geared toward reinforcing the modern foundations of power."

Archaeological Dig

That is why it is no surprise that one of the first official acts the Palestinian Authority took after settling up its self-ruling government in Jericho was the launching of an araeological dig at the nearby Hisham's Palace, the ruins of a winter residence built in the eighth century for a caliph of the Omayyad Dynasty. The authority also began pushing for the return of archaeological artifacts found in the West Bank during the Israeli military occupation, including the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls. The issue is so sensitive that Israel and the authority decided to leave it for later negotiations, along with other volatile disputes such as the future of Jerusalem and fate of Jewish settlements.

But archaeologists and biblical scholars say they are often amazed at the historical liberties taken by political leaders, who disregard or sometimes rewrite ancient stories to suit current needs. In August, the Palestinian Authority held a ceremony in the ancient amphitheater of Sabatsia, a village near the West Bank city of Nablus. Young people recreated the pagan legend of Ba'al, the Canaanite god, as a narrator read aloud an ancient text designed to resonate with the modern political troubles of its audience; warnings about the Hebrew tribes led by Joshua that were then starting to conquer Canaan.

The ceremony itself had some scholarly holes, from the fact that Sabatsia was never a Canaanite city to the T-shirts worn by the ceremony participants that were decorated with a Philistine, rather than Canaanite, motif. But Mr. Abu Khalaf of the Islamic archaeology institute says those insisting on rigorous academic standards are missing the point. Though scholars say it isn't likely that the Canaanites originated in Arabia, he argues that life in traditional Palestinian villages today isn't much different than it was when the Canaanites lived here. It also doesn't bother him when Palestinians call Jesus Christ the first Palestinian. Jesus lived in Bethlehem, Mr. Abu Khalaf says, and Bethlehem's current inhabitants are Palestinians.

"This is about nation-building," he adds. "This is a way for us to say that, contrary to what the Israelis are trying to portray, we were here too, we have a history here, all this is part of Palestinian culture."

Shaky Historical Ground

Israeli efforts to make the Bible part of the political tug-of-war here are also on shaky historical ground. Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, says there are virtually no archaeological clues as to any of Hebron's former inhabitants, let alone proof of Abraham's presence there outside of the biblical tale. Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom argues that Israeli groups that make political claims to the West Bank based on the contention that it was once part of the biblical land of Israel should think again. The Old Testament describes three different sets of boundaries for the land of Israel, the book of Prophets three more, and rabbinic authorities a seventh, he says. "The borders were always changing according to the particular historical circumstances," says Mr. Milgrom, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Jerusalem water tunnel provides an illustration of the dangers inherent in the current trend. Israeli novelist Meir Shalev says the religious claims about the tunnel, already exaggerated, could spin even further out of control. "I wouldn't be surprised if next we hear that Bathsheba used water from the tunnel to wash before King David or that Mohammad's horse drank water from that tunnel," he says. Mrs. Shalev's novel inspired by the biblical story of Esau, the brother who gave away his brithright to his twin brother Jacob for some potage, was a bestseller in Israel.

By trying to attach biblical significance to even the smallest archaeological find, an international political crisis is unfolding over what Mr. Shalev calls "an interesting hydrological project from the Second Temple period, the ancient equivalent of a municipal water tunnel."