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SFSU panel recounts struggle to revive Mideast peace process


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February 12, 2003

Battered by more than two years of unrest and diplomatic breakdown, peace efforts between Palestinians and Israelis remain at a low point. At SFSU a panel of four distinguished visiting scholars spoke Monday, Feb. 10, to shed light on the current situation and prospects for building peace.

The forum was titled "Is There a Diplomatic Horizon for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?" and was organized as part of SFSU's Year of Civil Discourse, a series of events designed to promote civility and free speech on campus regarding complex subjects such as the Middle East.

"The Sharon government has put something of a damper on this issue," said SFSU history professor Jerry Combs, the event's coordinator. The effect, Manuel S. Hassassian, executive vice president of Bethlehem University, pointed out, has been that even Palestinian and Israeli scholars have had their collaborations hampered because of Israel's military clampdown on Palestinian territories.

But the intellectuals and activists on the panel demonstrated that constructive approaches to peace still abound.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli land-dispute expert and a former consultant to that country's government, summarized the contradictions proponents of peace now face. "We know what final status looks like," he said, and yet "we don't have the vaguest idea of how to get there."

Two professors said the mentality of a zero-sum game, where each side's gain is at the other's expense, has pervaded the region's politics. That deeply rooted cynicism has flourished since the failure of the "constructive ambiguity" that characterized Middle East diplomacy in the 1990s. Such ambiguity, though it eased the negotiating process, often led to contradictory interpretations of agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians.

SFSU alumnus Salim Yaqub, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, described the widening political morass that has surrounded recent attempts at diplomacy in the region. Although the United States has backed the "road map" proposal of 2002 to get peace negotiations restarted, he said, U.S. leaders have shown "extreme reluctance to get into the sort of fight with the Israeli government that would be necessary to bring such a resolution into being."

"There would be a fight between the Bush administration and the Israeli government; there would be a fight between the Bush administration and Congress; between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party; and within the Republican Party itself," Yaqub said. "And all of these fights would take place simultaneously."

Seidemann agreed that the "politics are against us, but history is on our side." He contrasted the "political impossibility" of the present with what he called a "historical inevitability," a suggestion that a slow momentum is building toward resolution despite the political impasse.

Menachem Klein, senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, offered what he called a "balance sheet" on the 1993 Oslo accord and the final status talks that fell apart in 2000. Klein said that while those peace efforts sometimes were lopsided and gave veto power to radicals in both camps, they did achieve real progress on most issues, especially on establishing borders and creating parameters for Jewish settlements in contested areas. He noted that the cycles of negotiations and agreements during the 1990s also broke political taboos about which issues were open to discussion.

Part of moving forward, according to Hassassian, is to implement everyday peace-building measures, such as changing how textbooks teach about Palestinian-Israeli relations. He says too often "both sides have focused on the process and neglected the substance" of living in peace. Hassassian, a Palestinian, emphasized that the previous agreements did little to change the lives of ordinary people, creating a troubling silence on the Israeli political left and in the Palestinian mainstream and leaving political leaders vulnerable to the pressures of extremists.

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Last modified February 12, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs