The Great Debate: Middle East Peace
COM event asks who stands in the way
Achieving meaningful peace in the Middle East has become one of the most contentious issues facing the international community. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, centered largely on issues of borders, control of Israeli settlements, and freedom of movement for Palestinians, remains a stalemate, despite efforts by the Obama administration to bring both sides back to the table for revived peace talks earlier this year. Just last week, attention was drawn to the region after Palestine’s bid to win full membership in the United Nations was set back when the Security Council’s admission committee announced it was deadlocked.
So what stands in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement? That question will be debated by students and well-known Middle East experts tonight when the College of Communication hosts its annual Great Debate, which poses an issue of national or international significance to a panel of experts and students for spirited discussion. Justin Bourke (COM’13) will be part of a team arguing that Israeli leaders are to blame for the political impasse, while Phillip Kisubika (COM’13) will be among those arguing that Palestinian leaders are at fault.
One proposal currently on the table calls for a two-state solution, creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Just last week, President Obama’s leading envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, who has announced he is resigning at the end of the year, told the New York Times that neither Israel nor Palestine “can wish each other away. They have to live together, there’s no other option, and the only way they can live with each other is a two-state solution.”
Robert Zelnick, a COM journalism professor, former longtime ABC News reporter, and moderator of tonight’s event, says he chose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the topic for the 29th Great Debate because it is currently such a pivotal time in the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
“If things go wrong, the investment in peace taken by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin could come very close to the Nasser-era hostilities,” Zelnick says, referring to the former Egyptian president and Israeli prime minister who signed an historic peace treaty in 1979. “Additionally, the upheavals growing out of the Arab Spring could push the parties towards more intense conflict rather than democracy and negotiation. The Arab Spring has unleashed a variety of emotions, ranging from a yen for democracy to a renewed commitment to Islamic fundamentalism and a desire to settle scores with Israel.”
Bourke and Kisubika say they’ll bring starkly different interpretations to who is at fault for the stalled peace talks. “One of the big considerations in our argument is that it is a very asymmetrical relationship,” says Bourke, a broadcast journalism graduate student. “Israel commands a vast majority of the leverage, and given that fact, certainly there is plenty of blame to go around to either side, but I came to the conclusion that Israel’s position is a little unclear, and I think they have been a little heavy-handed in negotiations.”
Sports journalism graduate student Kisubika says he’ll argue that “Israel has to fight just to be a country, to be accepted. It hasn’t helped that Palestinians haven’t separated themselves from those who wish ill to Israel. The constant negative rhetoric directed towards Israel makes it hard for them to work towards peace.”
The two students will be joined on stage by leading policy experts. Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and Geoffrey Aronson, director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace will argue with Bourke that Israel, more than Palestine, is responsible for the impasse. Taking Kisubika’s position will be Robert Lieber, a Georgetown University professor of government and international affairs, and Joshua Muravchik, a Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute fellow.
This is the second time that Lieber has been invited to appear as a guest at COM’s Great Debate, an honor, Zelnick says, “infrequently bestowed,” but that reflects Lieber’s “elevated standing” among Arab-Israeli conflict scholars. Zelnick describes Ibish as a “rising young intellectual and gifted spokesman for the Palestinian cause. He is carefully followed by scholars and diplomats on both sides of the conflict for his reason, his moderation, and his intellect.”
The Great Debate is modeled after the famous Cambridge and Oxford University Union Societies’ public discussions, a fierce debating competition between the two universities. At the end of tonight’s two-hour event, Zelnick says, he will ask the audience to vote for who they believe has made the most persuasive argument by moving to one side or the other of the Tsai Performance Center.
Bourke and Kisubika both admit to some anxiety in advance of tonight’s forum. “This debate requires a lot of background and history on the topic,” Bourke says. “You need to get your facts right more than anything. The amount of research required is almost overwhelming.”
For his part, Kisubika says, “I think I’ll really get nervous that moment when I walk into the Tsai Center, and I see all the people in the audience.”
The Great Debate: Israeli-Palestinian Peace: Who Stands in the Way? will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 15, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the BU community.26 Comments