WALTHAM -- Students in a course on Middle East politics at Brandeis University are learning about the continuing conflict there in a revolutionary way this semester. In what is believed to be a first on an American college campus, "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East" is being co-taught by Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian scholars.
Feldman and Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, taught the first half of the course. The pair focused on the regional dimensions of the conflict and the formation of the Arab League in 1945. During the second half of the semester Feldman is teaching with Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the conflict.
"It is very important to have Arabs cooperating not only on research but teaching. Balance drives everything," said Feldman, who was the director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University before joining the Brandeis faculty in February. "Some students came to this experience having been exposed to mostly an Israeli narrative. All of a sudden they are exposed to a much greater complexity," he said. "In the end students will have a much richer understanding of the conflict."
"It is not entirely academic to them," said Shikaki. "They have to interact with us in a way that sometimes comes into contradiction with their own personal narratives." Arielle Eisenbaum, a sophomore from Newton majoring in international global studies, said the Egyptian and Palestinian perspectives on the conflict have exposed her to the unknown.
In the seminar class last week, Feldman, Shikaki and students discussed the Israeli motivations for unilateral disengagement in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which began in August, and the construction of a security barrier. According to one version of the Israeli point of view, Israel felt it had no partner for negotiation and it became clear there was no offensive solution to ending the violence, Feldman said.
"There was some historical record," said Feldman. "The security barrier constructed around the Gaza Strip was successful. None of the suicide bombing originated in Gaza." After Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale military operation conducted by Israeli defense forces in April 2002, there was wide public support for a security barrier, Feldman said. "When suicide bombings continued it became clear that offensive operations were not enough," he said. "There was public outcry for defense."
Feldman said the demographic trends were also a factor. Israeli officials realized that the Arab population would soon outnumber Jews and Palestinians could abandon the two-state solution that was previously accepted. "This issue is beyond national security. It is the character of the state," said Feldman. "According to this narrative, demographics were a huge factor for the fence."
Israel had become stronger than ever militarily and economically, while traditional threats -- destruction of the state by large-scale conventional war -- were fading with the fall of Iraq, according to Feldman. Feldman said some former security hawks who opposed territorial concessions -- including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- split from the hard-liner camp and are now the strongest proponents of unilateral disengagement.
There are also competing Israeli narratives, he said. Some believe that disengagement sets a bad precedent; that dismantling the Israeli settlements would only tell the Palestinian terrorists that violence pays. But Shikaki, an expert on Palestinian public opinion, said that while 70 to 90 percent of Palestinians supported violence a year ago, today only 30 percent support violence. The difference is in large part due to positive economic expectations following Israeli withdrawal.
"Logically you would think that disengagement leads to violence. It is not. It is helping the peace process," he said. While Palestinians are happy with Israeli disengagement, they do not agree with the routing of the security barrier, which some call the apartheid wall, Shikaki said. "It is a wall that separates Jews from Palestinians and Palestinians from Palestinians," he said. "The barrier to them (Palestinians) is a political barrier because it goes deep inside the West Bank."
The barrier also unilaterally sets the borders of the Palestinian state that cuts of populations of Palestinians, he said. "In reality there would be no contiguity between the Palestinian state and its capital. The routing makes a two-state solution impossible," he said.
In hearing the competing points of view, Shikaki hopes students will understand the opportunities for peacemaking by the end of the course. "This makes people begin to think that what you see and what you hear is a narrative. When there is one narrative, there are many," he said.