Bob Zelnick declared tonight's "Great Debate" on Who is to blame for the elusive peace: Israel or the Palestinians?, held at BU's Tsai Performance Center, a draw; even though the majority had ambled over to the side that thought Israel was to blame. Bob simply confused which side represented which of the arguments. The people who meant to indicate that they voted on behalf of the Palestinian grievances against Israel protested politely, in typical BU fashion, when Zelnick first declared the Israeli side the winner. In the end, all acquiesced in the Zel/omon/ic/k judgment.
This is what really happened: the winner was the audience! Not few of us gravitated toward the middle, perhaps because we thought that both sides were right, or both sides at least made important points that had been worth stating and that had been stated well. As neutral observers we simply wanted both sides to be heard! The audience won by being treated to eloquent expositions of both sides' grievances. Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, demythologized many of the apologetic saws presented by the other side and eloquently zeroed in on the one thing that matters if we are concerned with human dignity, namely, the fact that there's no equality between Palestinians and Israelis as long as one of these people lives under occupation and the other one doesn't (or does the occupying). On the other side, Robert Lieber, Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, passionately articulated the sense of dread that prevents Israelis and Jews from trusting even the moderates among the Palestinians. Geoffrey Aronson and Joshua Muravchik as well as a student speaker on each side of the debate also added valuable points, although the eloquence of Justin Bourke, who described for us the indignities suffered by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, was not matched by Phillip Kisubika who tried valiantly but failed to capture the Israeli psyche; this was done later by a member of the audience who described the terror suffered by his friends who live under the constant threat of random rocket attacks launched from Gaza.
Both sides had a point. Hearing both sides mattered. But the audience felt, I believe, that debating the conflict in this manner was ultimately unhelpful. Arguments on both sides have become routinized. They can be rehearsed and reproduced; much like in a family feud, it's the same old complaints one side hurls at the other. What was missing was any mention of mediation.
It became clear that, without mediation, the parties to this conflict may not be expected to generate the political will to settle their dispute along lines that have long been determined in numerous agreements, documents, and road maps. We know more or less that the only acceptable (though surely painful) solution to the conflict is the two-state-solution. So what's the problem? The elephant in the room seemed the realization that if both Palestinians and Israelis may be equally blamed for the current stalemate, and if neither can resolve it, then perhaps international mediation is required? But where is that mediation? What is the role of the US today? Why has Obama failed to make progress? Is it because of Iran and changes in the balance of power in the region emanating from an Iran boasting nuclear weapons, or is it because of the fickle US electorate that no decisive steps can be taken by anyone at this moment? Unfortunately, no one said this at this great debate. In that sense the audience lost.