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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.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

26 Comments on The Great Debate: Middle East Peace

  • Anonymous on 11.15.2011 at 8:51 am

    Will the debate be streamed or filmed? The wider international BU community should have access to it.

  • Amy M Laskowski on 11.15.2011 at 9:03 am

    I am finding out if it will be filmed and will let you know ASAP. If it is, I’ll post the link to this story page.

    • Anonymous on 11.15.2011 at 2:29 pm

      Thank you. If not, a link to view it at a later date would be great too. Could BU Today perhaps film it and post it?

  • Anonymous on 11.15.2011 at 11:32 am

    As someone who has no personal stake in this conflict, but who has studied it and spent a good deal of time in the middle east, I thought I would share some thoughts here. Legally, Israel does not have a claim to any territory conquered after 1948. But at a minimum Israel will have to retreat to pre-67 borders in order for there to be a workable peace arrangement. Israel will have to remove all the illegal settlements from the West Bank, or else there won’t be a workable peace arrangement. The blockade will have to be lifted from Gaza and Israel will also have to give up its claim to East Jerusalem. Those are the minimum conditions that I believe would allow for a peace between Israel and Palestine such as Israel has with Jordan and Egypt. If that sounds like it’s asking a lot from Israel, then maybe you can understand why peace seems so elusive. But from the perspective of international law, it’s fair.

    • Anonymous on 03.07.2012 at 5:07 pm

      Perhaps another minimum condition would be the acknowledgement in word and in deed of Israel’s citizens’ right to life (contradicted by the bombings, slayings, and lynchings that are sometimes outwardly decried by Palestinian leadership, but actually typically locally exalted and often financially well-compensated). In practical terms, this condition would constitute a cessation of terrorist activity, and an end to the incendiary dissemination of the de-humanizing anti-Semitic rhetoric omnipresent in a variety of materials, across venues, and for audiences of all ages.

      The interpretation of international law detailed above is definitely defensible. But at the same time, it’s understandable if Israel- being of rather miniscule proportion in a frightfully anti-Semitic region boasting some of the grossest human rights violations and most abysmal Democracy Index rankings in the world- demands this as a necessary, bare-minimum precondition for believing that adoption of pre-67 borders would be “workable”- let alone “peaceful.”

      And if that sounds like it’s asking a lot from Palestinians, then probably our perspective as neutral onlookers, or even the perspective of international law, requires some remedial redress.

  • Lara on 11.15.2011 at 12:37 pm

    To the author, Amy Laskowski: Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser passed away in 1970. It was the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Please check historical facts before writing them into the online news bulletin of one of the most prominent universities in the U.S. Please.


  • amy laskowski on 11.15.2011 at 1:05 pm

    Professor Zelnick’s quote says that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin were responsible for the 1979 peace treaty, but that initiative is in jeopardy now and the situation could revert to the hostilities of the years when Nasser was Egypt’s president, 1956 to 1970.

  • David on 11.15.2011 at 2:58 pm


    You do not know much about international law. By your standards we need to give Texas and California back to Mexico. Also it is not illegal to build apartment buildings in your own country.

    • @David on 11.16.2011 at 12:23 pm

      False. The US made a treaty with Mexico after the Mexican War. That was a conflict between states. What you need to understand is that almost no country recognizes Israel’s current borders. Furthermore, Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, which expressly forbid forced annexation and settlement of occupied areas. You just got lawyer’d.

      • David on 11.16.2011 at 3:25 pm


        Land gained in war from an aggressor and incorporated into a nation’s borders is not a violation of international law. In fact you will find almost no country on the face of the earth, save the Vatican, that is not in the same situation.

        Also calling occupied areas “occupied areas” does not make them occupied according to international law. So your practice areas is?

        You just got primary sourced 101.

        Also this conflict would end tomorrow if the Palestinians actually recognized Israel’s right to exist. Settlements and walls are all smoke and mirrors. When Sharon gave Gaza to the Palestinians (which they immediately trashed – destroying vital resources) it proved the lie that Israel is not a willing peace partner.

        • @David on 11.16.2011 at 4:15 pm

          Let’s talk about the Fourth Geneva Convention, which effects all actions after 1949, and to which Israel is bound. “An occupier may not forcibly deport protected persons, or deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory.” Furthermore, UN security council resolution 478 entails that Israel does not legally hold Jerusalem. So not only are the West Bank settlements illegal, but so are the settlements in Jerusalem and especially East Jerusalem, which have recently been accelerated as revenge for the Palestinian UN bid for statehood. Israel is not a willing peace partner because all it does is antagonize the Palestinians at every turn. I’m sure the blockade, the wall, and near-constant airstrikes have nothing to do with the current state of Gaza. But I will say, there is one very compelling reason why Israel would not want a Palestinian state to exist. A Palestinian state would have access to the ICC, and would doubtless bring charges of the crime of apartheid. They’d have a good case too.

          • David on 11.17.2011 at 9:30 am

            Again with the occupied territory. So you are saying that Arabs can live in Israel (which they do) but Jews must be ethnically cleansed from Palestinian areas? Got it. Also, Palestinians rejected Statehood when Israel and Trans-Jordan accepted it under the Palestinian mandate. In fact Jordan was one of two offered Palestinian states. So those who rejected it actually occupied Israel proper.

            Further UN resolutions against Israel (which is notorious in it’s antii-semitism and anti-Israelism) are a joke. They ignore genocides across Africa while condemning any act of self defense by Israel. You also miss many actual facts. Israel hands Gaza over to the Palestinians. They elect a terrorist organization to power whose own charter demands not only the destruction of Israel but all Jews (where have I heard that before?) and immediately starts launching missiles at Israeli school children. Shame on Israel for not laying down and dying.

            Why would any one want a state where terrorist attacks could be launched? You act as if the Palestinians are not calling for Israel’s destruction? What do you think the Palestinians should do for peace? Anything?

            By the way it was not the Palestinians who controlled East Jerusalem. So is any country asking for it back? Jordan? Youa re completely wrong about the rest of Jerusalem. Israel’s capital.

            If Israel stopped constructing apartments and and stopped defending her citizens would Hamas embrace a peaceful two state solution? Perhaps you should read some of their official statements on the matter. Nowhere has Israel called for the destruction of the Palestinian people. Everywhere the opposite is true. Right down to the textbooks used in Palestinian schools.

            Finally – there has never been a nation called Palestine. Those who call themselves Palestinians did not call themselves that prior to 1948. Their ancestory is Arabian. There was never, prior to Arafat, a Palestinian king, PM or President. Can you name one?

            By the way. I am for a two state solution. But there is just way too much fiction out there. If Israel is not a valid state than neither is Jordan. This has everything to do with intolerance of Jews in the middle east.

          • @David on 11.20.2011 at 8:56 pm

            You’re getting hung up on talking points. By occupied territory I’m talking about the West Bank and Golan Heights, not Israel as a whole. Israel with pre-67 borders is a totally acceptable solution to the problem and the one which is probably most palatable to all parties.

            Organizations like Hamas are a product of their environment. You may remember it was JFK who said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Well, Palestinians don’t have a lot of options when dealing with their grievances. And I know Israel loves to play the victim, yet their heavyhandedness in responding to threats is probably the only reason Hamas exists. Remember that the Just War Doctrine requires proportionality of response; that means you don’t get to bomb a highly-populated civilian area just because a few rockets land in a field. Not to mention Mossad’s habit of routinely assassinating influential Palestinians (Operation Wrath of God for an example).

            So just to reiterate, I’m just trying wade through some of the misinformation that’s being tossed around. Israel is not a victim and nowhere does international law give a state the right to acquire “defensible borders” from its neighbors. It has nothing to do with Judaism in the middle east- Jews and Muslims have historically gotten on fine together. The problem is that Israel’s domestic policy needs to change, and either become more inclusive (some would say this might require Israel to adopt a secular government) or else allow a Palestinian state to emerge peacefully. Otherwise we get to keep rehashing this argument every few months for the rest of our lives.

          • David on 11.21.2011 at 10:48 am

            You can certainly try to marginalize what I wrote by trying to reduce it to talking points. The reality is you are doing what you are accusing me of. I have studied this issue for decades. You dismiss a religiously motivated organization that does not even attempt to disguise its genocidal views as merely having been forced into those beliefs by Israeli policy. 600,000 Jews were expelled from Muslim land in 1948. How is that for getting along?

            You are skipping something important. The land was acquired during a war where Israel was attacked. You seem to suggest they just moved in and took the land from friendly neighbors. I will say it again. Acquiring land in this way is not against international law. Giving up the Golan Heights would be put Israel in a dangerous situation – especially given the volatile of Syria right now.

            A few bombs hitting your town might change your mind. With all due respect you have a very shallow understanding of the issues. Hamas deliberately fires rockets from areas where they are using their own people as human shields.

            Israel has been victimized. Decades of suicide bombings can never be justified. The Palestinian actually created the concept. Thousands of Israelis have been blown up in civilian areas. For you to diminish their suffering is unconscionable.

            Have innocent Palestinians suffered? Of course. But primarily as victims of their own leaders and being a convenient rallying point for much of the mideast that has a vested interest in keeping them victims and doing very little to actually help the situation.

            Feel free to have the last word. But I do suggest going to some primary sources and not merely parrot NYT’s articles.

          • Give me a break on 11.21.2011 at 3:02 pm

            As long as we’re talking numbers, we might as well mention the millions of Palestinians who have been displaced in the wake of Israeli expansion, with land confiscations continuing to this day. Maybe in your decades of research you missed the detail that Israel started the 1967 war that led to their illegal occupation of the West Bank, Golan, and East Jerusalem. And when Israel invaded Gaza in 2009 they killed over 1,000 civilians and used illegal weaponry against civilian-populated areas. At that point you’re no longer defending yourself, you’re engaging in state terrorism. And I find it unconscionable that you continue to insist Israel is a victim and not the cause of instability in the Middle East.

          • David on 11.21.2011 at 4:26 pm

            Wow. How many falsehoods can one fit into such a short response? Nearly everything you wrote has already been proven myth, lie or gross exaggeration. Israel started the 1967 war? Nasser declared war and the armies amassed around Israel from all sides. The millions of displaced Palestinians is also a myth – there were not millions living there to be displaced. I bet you believe the Protocols of the Elders of Zion too.

            I do not know if it is ignorance or hatred. But either way frightening. Please educated yourself.

            You also failed to mention the 329 rockets fired at Israel, unprovoked, from Gaza that started the Gaza war. You know place Sharon gave to the Palestinians while ethnically cleansing the Jews out of there.

  • Anonymous 2 on 11.15.2011 at 5:02 pm

    It is definitely not illegal to build apartments in your OWN country.
    Besides the argument about international law, there is common sense of morality that needs to be applied in this conflict. Displacing one to settled a displaced self is not a way to go. Dennis Ross has it right -they have to live with each other in a two state solution, with equal rights.
    If they are to coexist, issues of sustainability of both states (which is not much of a problem for Israel) alongside security needs dire attention.

    • David on 11.16.2011 at 3:29 pm

      Jerusalem, all of it, is a part of Israel.

      As soon as the Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to exist the conflict would end and their would be a two state solution. One will be (yet another) a religio-fascist state bent on the destruction of Israel.

      How have the Palestinians ever shown themselves to be willing peace partners? Name once peace accord they have not walked away from?

      • Anonymous on 03.08.2012 at 1:19 pm

        “If they are to coexist, issues of sustainability… alongside security needs dire attention”:
        This is absolutely true. However, sustainability does not exist “alongisde” security in this case. The existence of Israel is completely NOT sustainable if its security does not curtail the well-publicized intent to eliminate Israel.

        If a two-state solution is, for the Palestinian leadership that will come to dominate it, a means of eliminating Israel (something which has been advertised by Palestinian leaders), then “two state solution” is a misnomer, conveniently tossed around but irresponsibly applied.

        “Name one peace accord they have not walked away from” :
        There is no such peace accord.

        • Anonymous on 03.08.2012 at 1:37 pm

          Clarification to previously stated point above:

          There is no peace accord the terms of which they have not, over time, walked away from.

  • Michael Kraft on 11.15.2011 at 6:16 pm

    I was not aware of this program until this evening. I would be very interested in seeing this if you can post a video.

    Thank you.

  • donald gotshalk on 11.15.2011 at 7:56 pm

    Take 36 Israelis and Palestinians 18 to a side. equal number of male and female. Nobody over 30 years old or under 18. Make them all sit side by side. Absolutely no discussion about religion, culture, race, and politics. Include as extras the people in tonights debate. Have them meet once a week for 10 weeks for two hour sessions. I would like to see what they would come up with?

  • gary jacobson on 11.16.2011 at 11:05 am

    Please post a link to this debate – if it was recorded. G.Jacobson, BU Med.Faculty

  • Amy M Laskowski on 11.16.2011 at 11:09 am

    Update- I’m still trying to find out from COM if the event was recorded, and I’ll post an update as soon as I know. Thanks everyone.

  • TC on 11.17.2011 at 6:31 pm

    This is a very sensitive issue with emotional undertones on both sides. Very often, debates on this issue turn into shouting matches. Given all this, it would be interesting to see how this particular debate turned out.

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