A capacity crowd at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) this week (Feb. 11) got to see a scaled-down, toned-down version of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead of stones and rockets, words flew. Instead of despair, there was at least a glimmer of hope.
In one corner in this war of ideas — billed as “The Road to Peace After Gaza” — was a professor of Arab studies from Columbia University, Rashid Khalidi. In the other was Shai Feldman, a Middle East studies scholar from Brandeis University. In between was one-time American diplomat R. Nicholas Burns, now an HKS professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics.
Burns provided a scene-setter before the debate at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. In the last 61 years, he proffered, “the Israeli people have not known a single day of peace, and the Palestinian people have not had a single day of justice.”
In this long conflict, with smoke still rising from this year’s Gaza fighting, Burns managed to see a prospect for peace — though it is “a shimmering promise, far on the horizon.”
In the meantime, he said, people on both sides are “forced to lead abnormal lives.” Palestinians in particular live fragmented lives circumscribed by the new wall, pressed in by hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers on the West Bank, and choked off from reliable supplies of food, energy, and medicine.
Fighting last month made things worse, said Burns. “It’s already one of the most desperate places on earth, Gaza, and now it’s in ruins.”
Questions loom, he added: Will Hamas — the Sunni Muslim extremist group based in Gaza — let go of terrorism as the “price for statehood”? Will the Israelis, now divided by a hung election, dismantle a warren of settlements and roadblocks? Will the United States, under new leadership, recast the peace process?
“I’m a historian,” said Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, and so must accept that peace is one option — if only “a glimmer,” he said.
But before peace is possible, looking at why peace has failed is necessary. The Palestinian side has “a distinct lack of focus” in the political arena, he said, with loyalties split between an accommodating Fatah and an adamant Hamas.
At the same time, claimed Khalidi, the United States has failed by “accentuating that split,” pushing the prospects for peace even further away. Hamas is hard to swallow, he said, but they won an election in 2006 and must be brought to the table.
Meanwhile, Israel — backed by U.S. power — has depended on force to resolve the issue, and “the use of force has greatly accelerated violence,” Khalidi contended. “In this context, I think nonviolence is the correct approach.”
His point: To reach peace, bring in everybody — local, regional, international. The alternative, in part, said Khalidi, is a “proxy war” between Iran and the United States, a Cold War-like stalemate.
Burns asked Feldman: Will Israel — with its own left, right, center political divisions starkly on view after the recent election — be ready for a peace process?
That may depend on personalities, said Feldman of the fractious Israeli divides revealed by the ballot box this month. Any agreement on a direction for peace “requires three aspiring prime ministers to get together,” he said. “These are not modest individuals.”
But an irony underlies the Palestinian-Israeli divide, said Feldman: Identical public opinion polls show that “a vast majority” on both sides favor peace and a two-state solution.
But there are impediments, he said. For one, public opinion on both sides agrees on a solution, but feels the same deep pessimism.
And for another, said Feldman, Hamas has amassed “an unbelievable number” of rockets, some of them now capable of reaching into Israeli population centers, a threat of harm not seen since 1948. As a result, he said, an already edgy Israel has now become “even more hyper-vigilant.”
Burns asked of the two scholars to dream. If you could advise President Obama, what would you say?
Khalidi (who taught at the University of Chicago when Obama did) suggested first that the new president move his loyalties to the Chicago Cubs. (In this war of Middle East ideas, there was room for laughter.)
Beyond that, he suggested: Don’t foster Palestinian divisions, don’t rely on autocratic Middle East regimes, broaden dialogue with a nearly nuclear Iran, and set aside violence as a solution. “There is an illusion,” said Khalidi, “that this situation can only be resolved by force.”
Feldman’s advice: Divide the road to peace into four or five steps, each with a set of material incentives. Widen negotiations beyond Israel to include the intertwined problems of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. And bring Hamas to the table. “To ignore Hamas,” said Feldman “is to bury your head in the sand.”
After all, he reflected, a recalcitrant PLO — founded in the 1950s —came around to the idea of accepting Israeli statehood in 1988. Hamas — still young and angry — might evolve in the same way.
It won’t change its “basic ideological commitments” overnight, said Feldman, “but the practicalities can still be dealt with.”