Conflict offers no easy solutions

Middle East map

For more than half a century, the Middle East conflict has been one of the world’s chief foreign policy concerns—a situation that has greatly affected Arabs and Israelis, Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Eight successive U.S. presidents have attempted to resolve the issue, and although some have made progress, none have succeeded.

A public discussion titled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Is There Really A Solution?,” held March 23 in Houston Hall, examined the complex issue from two sides.

Co-sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Political Science and the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics, the event featured Ian Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman Chair of Political Science at Penn, and Gen. Zvi Shtauber, the former director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, who was visiting from Israel.

Shtauber, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a participant in the 2000 Camp David Peace Summit, said the last 10 years have been a learning experience for Israel. The reality of the current situation, he said, has forced the country to wake up to a “different and more challenging environment than we expected.”

In recent years, he said, there has been “a great and dramatic change in the Middle East.” Historically, when one talked about the region, he or she was referring to the Arab countries. Nowadays, by contrast, the region’s principal players—Turkey and Iran—are not Arab.

Additionally, while the Arab liberation movements of the past have been secular—such as the regional emergence of the Baath Party and the Arab unification philosophy promoted by former Egyptian President Gamal Nasser—the major motivating force today is religion.

Shtauber said the Israeli government thought the 2000 Peace Summit would change the landscape in the Middle East and create a more promising future, but they now realize the problems of the region are much more complicated than they expected.

“We know now the limits of military power,” he said. “We had once hoped to change the reality. What’s happening now, we are forced to live with reality. We gave up the hope to change things. We are facing challenges which do not have a good solution.”

Lustick expressed grave doubts about a resolution to the conflict, and said that insisting on a “Jewish state” and not a “predominantly Jewish polity” in the Middle East is one barrier to any solution.

Lustick, an author of numerous books and articles about Israeli Arabs, the politics of Jewish and non-Jewish migration in and out of Israel and Palestine, and the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, explained that the “Jewish state” is understood in Israel and enshrined in Israeli law as meaning the country is not to be regarded as a “state for all its citizens.” In fact, he said, it is illegal to run as a political party in Israel on a platform that denies the “Jewish state.”

“One of the leading alternative conceptions is that Israel could be considered a democratic state for all its citizens,” he said. “This is a formulation favored by Israeli Arabs and many Jewish liberals. If the majority of citizens of such a state were Jewish, it would be, in my parlance, a ‘predominantly Jewish polity,’ but not a ‘Jewish state.’ The current State of Israel is both a predominantly Jewish polity and a ‘Jewish state.’”

Israeli and Palestinian foreign policy doves and people of all political stripes in the United States champion the idea of a two-state solution to the region—one Arab and one Jewish. Lustick, however, said this is becoming less and less of a realistic possibility because of the abandonment of hope among Israelis and Palestinians that it is viable, and because the problems currently overwhelming the U.S. government outweigh its will to put the full weight of its influence where required.

“It makes it extremely difficult to imagine the Obama Administration moving as vigorously as necessary to save the two-state solution in what may be the last window of availability,” he said.

Originally published on April 9, 2009