Israelis and Palestinians must reconcile their differences from within before they can have productive talks with each other about moving toward a peace agreement, according to two Middle East experts at Wednesday's (Feb. 11) John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, "The Road to Peace After Gaza."
Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, Harvard Kennedy School professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics and member of the Belfer Center's board of directors, moderated the conversation between Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies and member of the Belfer Center's board of directors, and Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.
Burns noted that in the 61 years since the creation of Israel "the Israeli people have not known a single day of peace and the Palestinian people have not had a day of justice."
Despite the two groups' history of violence, distrust and failed peace talks, Khalidi and Feldman agreed that there is the possibility of peace. Before this can happen, however, they both said there are steps Israel and the Palestinian Authority must take in terms of how they interact with their own internal factions and each other.
"I think in order to actually have progress towards any Palestinian goals, obviously you have to resolve this terrible split in Palestinian politics," Khalidi said. "The Palestinians have to have a national consensus if they're going to come to the table."
Feldman said he believes Israel's major challenge is overcoming the disordered nature of the Israeli electorate. Despite a majority of Israelis supporting an end to the conflict through a two-state solution, they are pessimistic and unsure of how to actually live with the preferred solution.
"One of the negative offsprings of what has happened as a result of these rockets that have reached longer and longer ranges," Feldman said, "is that now Israelis are becoming even more hyper-sensitive to some of these security issues."
No matter what is negotiated, Feldman said, "Israelis are going to be even more insistent on the security dimension of these negotiations."
Khalidi countered that, while security is a necessary aspect of the peace process, the use of force has not and will not work.
"There is an illusion that this is a problem that can only be solved by force," he said. "The illusion is fostered by demonizing the other side. Palestinians demonize the Israelis, but heaven knows Hamas, particularly, has been demonized."
Along with bringing all Israeli and Palestinian factions to the table, Burns questioned who else should be part of the discussion. Both Feldman and Khalidi referenced the 1991 Madrid talks, where then-Secretary of State James Baker brought together delegations from Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians – the first time all these groups were gathered face-to-face – to discuss a peace process and normalization of relations in the region with Israel. They agree that a similar multilateral framework – including the 1991 countries, plus Iran – will be needed for peace today.
While Khalidi focused more on the need to have all parties, specifically Hamas and Iran, present, Feldman expressed more concern with the purpose of the engagement. "'Would you engage Hamas?' or 'would you engage Iran?' is not the essential question. The real question is: what are you going to engage them about? What is going to be the nature of the conversation?" Feldman said. "You cannot ignore Hamas. The question is how do you deal with them?"
Despite their differences, Feldman and Khalidi both agreed that the need for a sustainable peace agreement is vital to both sides.