Three noted scholar-diplomats — one Saudi Arabian, one Israeli, one American — sat down together at Princeton University on Dec. 3 to take the measure of the Middle East conflict.
All three saw a region ripe for change, and an incoming American president poised to shepherd a peace process. And while they differed on who remains the greatest hindrance to progress, they agreed that there are initiatives in place that point to a possible resolution.
The program brought together Prince Turki al Faisal, chair of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh; Itamar Rabinovich, visiting professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government; and Daniel Kurtzer, Princeton's inaugural S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies.
More than 250 people filled Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for the discussion — The Middle East at a Crossroads.
This past year, while Israelis celebrated the 60th anniversary of their state, Palestinians mourned what they call Al Naqba — "the Catastrophe" — said al Faisal, who once attended the Lawrenceville School, just a few miles down the road from where he stood.
"For six decades, so much blood has been spilled without concrete results, that the prospect of peace is nothing but a shimmering mirage," he said. "Whatever else one believes, it is universally agreed that the Palestinian people are occupied and have been deprived of the rights to their land."
Al Faisal outlined progress and missteps on the road to peace.
"The Oslo Accords of 1993 were a significant turning point in the conflict," he said. "But the peace enshrined in the Oslo Accords did not materialize. Alas, the assassination of [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish terrorist brought to an end this most hopeful development for peace.
"After the assassination of Rabin, Israel used Oslo as a cover under which to appropriate more land — especially around Jerusalem," he said. "Israel's negotiating strategy kept at arm's length any negotiation on final-status issues…which is the key to a lasting and secure peace."
Al Faisal continued his litany of failed efforts at achieving peace — the 2002 plan of the "Quartet" — the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the UN — the Road Map in 2003, and, on the Arab side, the Fahd Plan of 1981 and the Saudi-led initiative of 2002.
"Alas, here we are at the end of 2008, and peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is still far off," al Faisal said. "It is clear that the new American administration will have to continue the efforts of this one. The road to peace is clear. However, walking it will take a great deal of effort on the part of Israel."
At the heart of the Arab initiatives for peace, al Faisal said, are demands that Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders, accept a just solution to the refugee problem, and recognize an independent state of Palestine with "East Jerusalem" as its capital.
"We demand that Israelis and Palestinians eschew violence," he said. "We demand that Israel stop the destruction of homes, the uprooting of olive trees, the indiscriminate imprisonment of Palestinians, the construction of the apartheid wall.
"We demand the Palestinians use all measures to stop suicide bombers and missile attacks, and that they release the Israeli soldier [Gilad] Shalit. All of these points can be executed at the same time, without delay.
"This work will require all of our patience and determination," he said. "It will not be easy. It will take tough negotiations and empathy, but these efforts will be worth it."
Rabinovich said he welcomed al Faisal's positive approach, but disagreed with his historical narrative. He said that although there was much to be lauded in Saudi Arabia's initiative, it came two years too late to provide former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with the support he needed in order to make concessions on Jerusalem and final-status issues.
Rabinovich also noted that al Faisal had overlooked the roles of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.
"They are all in the Middle East, and they are all the foci of problems," he said. "We need to take a comprehensive view of Middle East problems as we look forward with the hope and expectation of resolving this conflict."
Rabinovich noted that Syria is Iran's most important ally in the region, and that it forms a land bridge over which Iran can directly connect with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. He deplored the Bush administration's early move to abolish the office of the Middle East special coordinator. And he recalled that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been elected in 2006 on a platform calling for Israel's disengagement from the Palestinian territories.
"It never worked out," he said, "but remember that a party was elected in 2006 in Israel on that platform."
Al Faisal's presence at the Princeton forum was a sign that the entire region is ready for change, Rabinovich observed. He called upon President-elect Barack Obama to begin to deal with the issues by the spring of next year — not only by adapting the road map, the Quartet's plan, and the Saudi initiative, but also by beginning a series of confidence-building measures after the Israeli elections on Feb. 10.
"As the United States takes the lead, the Arab world, hopefully led by Saudi Arabia, needs to come forward with ideas and support — the kind of support that was not there in 2000," he said. "This should take us to a new beginning that will be very helpful."
Kurtzer, who has been serving as an adviser to Obama on Middle East issues, pointed to additional challenges facing the region — growing poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, lack of upward mobility, a population explosion, the strain on social services, the susceptibility of Arab youths to the appeal of religious extremists, and, in Israel, the systematic and growing lawlessness of the settler movement.
As the sides come together to grapple with these issues, Kurtzer said, "I suggest we spend far more time listening to each other than preaching to each other. Today is a good example."
The recent American election signaled a desire for the kind of leadership that can effect transformational change, he added.
"The Middle East is crying out today for such leadership — both in the region and in Washington," he said. "The first place to start is the Middle East peace process. It's time to stop catering to vocal minorities in the region on both sides who strive for a winner-take-all, zero-sum outcome."
The building blocks and diplomatic tools to accomplish this are already in place, Kurtzer said. He noted that Obama has pledged to activate a Middle East peace initiative at the outset of his term and that the upcoming Israeli elections will give Israelis the opportunity to demand a policy change from their leaders.
"It is time also for Arabs to tell their leaders to activate the [peace] initiative and to support progress in the tough negotiations that need to take place," Kurtzer said. "I do not pretend it will be easy. I do insist that it is possible and it is urgent.
"The resolution of the Arab-Israeli problem will not resolve the endemic problems of the region," he said. "But it is quite possible to believe that Middle Easterners can begin to develop solutions to these problems, and to stand up and challenge their leadership to get to work on problems that seemed to be impervious to change — and then to change them."
Sponsors of the program, in addition to the Woodrow Wilson School, were the university's Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, the Carolyn L. Drucker Memorial Fund, the Department and Program in Near Eastern Studies, the Transregional Institute, the Center for Jewish Life, and the Perelman Institute for Judaic Studies of the Program in Judaic Studies.