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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Israel and Palestine: the State of the Question


Event Recap

On October 27 a packed lecture hall engaged three experts in a lively discussion of the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and possible ways forward in the peace process. Raymond Cohen, Augustus Richard Norton and Desmond Travers brought their unique experience and insight to bear upon the complex issue just weeks after the controversial Goldstone Report had implicated soldiers from both sides in possible war crimes during Israel’s late 2008 incursion into Gaza.

Recently retired from his chair in international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Raymond Cohen is now the Corcoran visiting professor in the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. He began the panel with a brief overview of the current deadlock, then presented three recommendations if negotiations are to move forward. First, the Palestinian Authority must re-emerge as a unified government for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza alike. This would require some form of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but if achieved it could provide the domestic stability crucial to sustained peace talks. Second, Israel must freeze construction on new settlements in occupied territories. And third, President Obama should leverage diplomatic and personal relationships to see that the settlement freeze actually take place, even if it means delivering a televised speech directly to the Israeli people.

Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, signaled his agreement with much of Cohen’s remarks. He added that Israel must act quickly to change its policy on West Bank settlements if it is to reverse what appear to be strong shifts in Turkish and American public opinion against Israel. Norton argued that Israeli actions in Gaza have hardened regional support for radical organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as extremist groups in other parts of the world. This, in turn, has undermined American relations with the Muslim world more broadly. Without substantial progress in the region, President Obama’s promises in Cairo earlier this year will appear empty gestures.

The final speaker was Desmond Travers, recently retired colonel in the Irish Defense Forces who spent much of his career as a commander of UN missions in Lebanon, Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia. Travers was also one of the four authors of the Goldstone Report, upon which he focused his remarks. He vigorously defended the integrity of the commission’s data collection, saying that no factual errors had yet been found in the report. He also defended its key assertion that war crimes committed by both Israeli and Hamas soldiers should be punished—if not by internal authorities, then by the international community—if any movement toward reconciliation can be made in the region.

Panelists then fielded questions from the audience that centered on the peace process ahead. Norton explained that the Palestinian people already feel they have made a huge concession, given that any modern Palestinian state would only comprise 22% of the its pre-1967 territory. Cohen argued that the Palestinians’ best move would be to create an impeccable democracy. All panelists agreed that the window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution is coming to a close, and that action is urgently needed. We know what the blueprint of the two-state solution looks like, Norton said, since it has been determined in previous rounds of negotiation; it’s simply a matter of finding the capacity on the Palestinian side, and the will on the Israeli side, to implement it.