Israel has the undisputed strategic advantage in the Middle East. So now that Israelis feel more secure it's time to talk peace, seemed to be the underlying message delivered by Shai Feldman, the director of Brandeis University's new $25 million Crown Center for Middle East Studies. It was the second day of the opening conference and time to talk Turkey and Iraq and Iran, Syria and of course of the Israeli Disengagement Plan and a certain something called the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
Ironically, or perhaps not so, the Crown Center is funded by the Chicago-based Crown family, though it is Lester Crown who is cited as responsible for the endowment. His deceased father, the financier Henry Crown, secured government contracts for the F-16 fighter jet supplied by the aerospace and weapons industry giant, General Dynamics. At that time the Crowns owned 20% of the company. Today Lester sits on the board but retains a mere 8% of the company's holdings. General Dynamics is a major supplier of amphibious combat systems, armored and light wheeled reconnaissance vehicles, guns and ammunition handling systems, turret drive systems, and reactive armor and ordnances, according to their website.
One of the goals of the conference was to examine methodologies that might be useful in creating a Middle East studies center that truly matters. Debate on strategies for stabilizing the Middle East swung widely from further entrenchment of hard line Zionist power and control for the greater protection and defense of the Jewish people, to a call for a Regional Security Relations Council in the Middle East.
Barbara Bodine, Executive Director of the Governance Initiative in the Middle East, the Belfer Center at Harvard University suggested a more positive approach, stating that the creation of a regional security framework would not be advantageous to the region.
"By looking through a security prism, you are creating a negative framework," Bodine insisted. "The question then becomes against whom and what are you protecting yourself? A more positive approach is to create a developmental framework which focuses on cooperation." She used the example of education in the region which she said focuses on higher education while the K-12 education system remains dysfunctional. "Most children who grow up in the Middle East are not educationally equipped to operate in a global framework," she said.
Unemployment, stagnation and poverty were discussed as precursors to radical religious fundamentalism overtaking the political landscape of the region. "There is a need for 100 million jobs in the region because today the youth are angry and idle," Moroccan based Assia Bensalah Alaoui said. She is the director of research at the Center of Strategic Studies, Mohammed V University in Rabat.
Discussion also focused on whether gender equality adopted by Turkey 80 years ago can be replicated in other Muslim countries. "Turkey established gender equality long before many European cultures did," Osman Faruk Logoglu said. Logoglu served as the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to the United States in 1963.
Students at the Crown Center would be educated in Middle Eastern language, literature, cultural norms, religions, plus the politics and history of the region. Leadership and so-called "track two" diplomacy would be stressed where graduates might someday serve along with retired diplomats, academics and other prominent persons to help craft a workable framework for the region.
As for the Palestinian - Israeli conflict, Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah cited survey after survey which demonstrates that a conflict fatigue has set in along with a belief that change is in the air. But despite the optimism expressed by the majority on both sides for a resolution and a sincere desire for peace, Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem believes that the present Israeli government is not seeking a permanent two-state solution but rather an interim security regime.
"The Palestinian people want to live their lives in dignity, with justice and freedom. But Israel relies on a fait accompli with Palestine remaining under the control of Israel," the president of Al-Quds University said.
"The issue is one of viability, the creation of a self-sustaining, independent Palestinian state, not one with provision borders. Sharon's settlement policy in the West Bank negates the disengagement plan," he said stressing concerns that Gaza will be left as a suffocating ghetto. "The facts on the ground must be addressed right away. Sharon is pushing ahead with settlements and waiting for five years down the road when the Palestinians have been further worn down by the Occupation."
"But the Palestinian Authority leadership is not free to push ahead and work out a permanent solution," Nusseibeh continued explaining the need for the PA to open up to all political factions at this time, including those who insist on the Right to Return to their original homes. "The only possible salvation is to draw upon the resources of public opinion to create political change that will press ahead for a permanent solution."
Yair Hirschfeld, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa said that the real dialogue today is not external - between Israel and Palestine - but is internal between Israeli and Israeli and Palestinian to Palestinian.
"The facts on the ground must change so that solutions can arise that will make life livable for both sides," Hirschfeld commented, "then American leadership is needed to further negotiate the Road Map to a permanent solution."
*Genevieve Cora Fraser is a poet, playwright and journalist as well as a long-standing environmental and human rights activist.