THE BLOG
07/29/2014 01:29 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

Israelis and Palestinians at Harvard: Part 1 of 9

Future Leaders of Israel and Palestine Don't See Eye to Eye on many Issues

As I was walking in Cambridge, Massachusetts with an Israeli classmate and fellow graduate student we approached a coffee shop on the corner of JFK Street and Eliot Street. My Israeli classmate, Barak, was to meet with an Imam from Palestine, Yousef, also a graduate student at the Harvard JFK School of Government. I asked for an introduction to Yousef, who I had only seen in classes but never met.

Barak and Yousef were going to discuss family, their time at the Harvard, the Middle East and, of course, Israeli-Palestinian politics. What made this discussion different was that there were no negotiations to be made. There was no concern about the discussion or the implications of their discussion. There was no fear that a bomb would suddenly blow up a bus, rockets would come ringing down from either side, or that arrest and subsequent detention without due process would follow.

In short, they were talking about the very thing I wanted to learn from them: Why can't Palestinians and Israelis resolve their differences? I had the opportunity to interview Yousef, Barak and dozens of other Israelis and Palestinians. Their opinions and perspectives on various issues could not have been more different.

While President Kennedy said "Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man...No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings", Albert Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

The two sides of this issue define themselves by their differences -- Muslim and Jew; Israeli and Palestinian. Their differences seemingly define who they are. Adding a dimension, we also have Palestinian Jews and Israeli Muslims, two groups rarely talked about.

The thinking goes that since the opposing side is wrong about their position on this issue, one side is automatically right. Even though there is flaw in this logic, it doesn't matter. Who would admit to making errors for the past 60 years? What would be the implications of such an admission and what would it mean for one's cause?

Scholars, pundits, politicians, Muslims and Jews and a host of others say that the main problem in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There is a conventional wisdom that says that if we solve this problem then stability in the region will be greatly enhanced.

There have been many tried and ultimately, failed attempts by Western nations to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many believe that the U.S. must pressure Israel to achieve an end to this conflict. But the relative power and influence of the U.S. in the region is waning. China, Russia and others are becoming bigger consumers of oil and their influence is growing.

The U.S. is bogged down with domestic economic problems and political stalemates. In the past decade, the U.S. has been in two wars, participated in the NATO mission in Libya and is increasing its involvement in Somalia and Yemen. The U.S. is also watching the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea reach a virtual point of no return. Discrepancies between U.S. values and the occasional deviation of those values in practice (i.e. prisoner interrogation, drone attacks that kill civilians) also undermine U.S. leverage.

Should Israel or Palestine thumb their nose at U.S. attempts to mediate the situation, the U.S. has less it can do today than it could yesterday to bring parties back to the negotiation table. On the current trajectory, tomorrow, there will be even less the U.S. can do.

The question of Palestinian statehood has yet to be even closely resolved. Some people believe that creating a two-state solution will be done in baby steps while others believe that the UN should create a Palestinian nation, just as it created Israel in 1947.

President Obama's administration has tried and it may fail to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, just as every predecessor's administration has before. But for the declarations of a two-state solution, the Bush administration was unabashedly pro-Israel; President Clinton's administration got started too late to be successful. Reasons for the failures of US mediation are at least as many as there have been presidents since Israel's founding in 1948. But there is much more to this situation than the role of the U.S. In fact, assuming that the U.S. is a necessary component to a solution is not only perhaps a Western-centric point of view, it might also be misguided. Having said all that, the U.S. should take a role in mediating a peace agreement. While its relative power is in decline, its absolute power is unmatched. And despite several blemishes to our record as a beacon of light in the world, goodwill is a well entrenched characteristic of the United States; for all of the complaining that many disgruntled parties may do, most expect that the U.S. will do the right thing more than any other nation in the world.

The enmity between Arab and Jew is so great and so deeply entwined that peace can seem impossible most of the time. Each side has a sense of unquestionable rightness and the other side has been wronged for too long. Each side has a sense that past wrongs are of such magnitude that it is almost unfathomable to sit down without a negotiator. For many Palestinians, the Americans can't be that party; there is too much of a long and biased history in favor of Israel. For many in Israel, it almost doesn't matter who the moderator is; their position is clearly right, a point of view many Palestinians feel just as strongly about.

Most conflict resolution outlines on this matter identify the goals and the needs to achieve peace. This is insufficient. Too often overlooked are the actual people who come to the negotiating table and the people who advise the negotiators. Typically we look at the obstacles that have obstructed peace in the past, or the demands made by each side that have been failed to be realized. These are important. But if we are to understand what future negotiations are going to look like, we have to look at future leaders of the region, what they think and why.

Many of the people I interviewed will be in a leadership capacity in their countries someday and their opinions and perspectives are important. I spoke with Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis about this issue. Most of these individuals were educated at the School of Oriental Arts and Sciences, London School of Economics, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Stanford or Harvard University, to name a few. They all have different backgrounds and ambitions. The only thing they all share is that they are all career civil servants working for their respective governments. These are the future leaders of the Middle East, and this is the perspective they bring to the negotiating table.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.

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