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MSU Serling Institute hosts panel to discuss Israel-Palestine history and avenues for peace

November 30, 2023
Serling Institute Director Yael Aronoff and Monmouth University political science professor Saliba Sarsar on Zoom webinar Nov. 29, 2023.
Serling Institute Director Yael Aronoff and Monmouth University political science professor Saliba Sarsar on Zoom webinar Nov. 29, 2023. —

The MSU Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel hosted a panel to discuss the history of Israel and Palestine and examine potential solutions that are compassionate to both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. 

The webinar, titled “‘And,’ not ‘Or’:  Empathetic Complexity, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Efforts to Resolve it,” was led by Serling Institute Director Yael Aronoff and Monmouth University political science professor Saliba Sarsar.

Neither panelist discussed the events of Oct. 7 and the current Israel-Hamas war, but instead tackled the complex history of Israeli-Palestinian relations and avenues to a two-state solution. However, students were encouraged to ask questions for the panelists, including those addressing the ongoing war. 

In an email to The State News, Aronoff said the goal of the webinar was to present students with an alternative to the binary framework which she said makes individuals feel that they can only be “pro-Palestine” or “pro-Israel.”

“We reject an ‘either/or’ framework, and rather use a framework that honors the legitimacy of both Israeli and Palestinian desires for self-determination, promotes trying to understand Israeli and Palestinian perspectives with compassion, recognizes previous efforts to negotiate peace, and looks to future possibilities for negotiating peace through a two-state solution or a confederation based on a two-state solution,” Aronoff said in the email.

Rejecting the ‘either/or’ framework

Before delving into the history of Israel and Palestine, Aronoff re-emphasized the need to reject a binary model of the conflict that only recognizes the suffering or views of one party. She said using a binary framework promotes uncritical thinking and causes people to view one side as the sole victim of the conflict

Aronoff’s touched on key moments in Israeli and Palestinian history, such as the 1948 and 1967 wars. She said Jews and Palestinians both have legitimate claims to indigeneity and said acknowledging suffering on both sides is essential for a full understanding of history.  

“There’s a strong indigenous Palestinian connection,” Aronoff said. “But there’s also an indigenous Jewish connection and we can honor and try to understand and have compassion and hold those simultaneously in our hearts.”

Aronoff argued that it's crucial to recognize how the 1948 Arab-Israeli War was the Nakba, which means "catastrophe" in Arabic, for Palestinians. During the Nakba, Aronoff explained, Israeli military commanders forced 150,000 Palestinians to leave Israel, and another 600,000 left expecting that Israel would be defeated and that they would be able to return.

Simultaneously, Aronoff said, one can also recognize that Jews, many of whom were refugees themselves, were attacked by state militaries and Palestinian militias who had the intent to “at best conquer and expel, and at worst to massacre,” Jews.

Aronoff also said the 1967 Six-Day War and the Arab League’s refusal to recognize Israel or conduct negotiations with Israel following the war was an example of close-mindedness hindering progress. However, she added, it’s equally true that once under Israeli occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have suffered immensely, although Israel did evacuate all settlers and soldier from Gaza in summer 2005

“That doesn’t mean that there’s equal power or there’s equal degrees of blame for different things,” Aronoff said. “But (we want) to try to look at both peoples in a compassionate way.”

Past attempts at peace

In his portion of the panel, Sarsar provided examples of previous diplomatic efforts between Israel and other Arab nations, emphasizing the importance of leaders coming to the table open to compromise and negotiations. 

Sarsar recounted the political career of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat who, after waging war against Israel alongside other Arab nations, proceeded to negotiate with Israel and eventually signed two substantial disengagement agreements that prevented another war between the two countries, Sarsar said. 

Sarsar said Sadat met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978, a meeting which ultimately resulted in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979. However, Sarsar said, the signing of the 1979 treaty resulted in widespread condemnation from across the Arab world was a primary factor in his assassination in 1981.

Sarsar also brought up the example of Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime minister who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords in the name of safeguarding peace for future generations. Like Sadat, however, Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist for attempting to negotiate with the perceived enemy, Sarsar said.

Aronoff referenced these historical examples as well, saying that “spoilers” on each side who refuse to accept cooperation with the other prevent peace negotiations and further radicalize each other.

“Spoilers on both sides that have tried to undermine that progress have created disillusionment among both Israelis and Palestinians,” Aronoff said.

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Potential solutions

Sarsar outlined five “simple facts” that he said must be accepted before peace between Israel and Palestine can be reached:

  1. Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors forever.
  2. The longer Israelis and Palestinians wait to negotiate, the more complex the issues will become and the less room there will be for a peaceful solution.
  3. The core issues that separate Israelis and Palestinians such as borders, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, and access to water, have been thoroughly debated and are resolvable. The challenge lies in initiating negotiations in good faith.
  4. Regional and international actors are key in supporting any future peace between Israel and Palestine.
  5. The United States is indispensable for the promotion and sustenance of peace negotiations.

Sarsar concluded his segment with an earnest appeal to the international community to find peace and prevent future wars from devastating innocent civilians.

“This is the dream I have,” Sarsar said. “This is the dream that all Palestinian mothers and parents have, this is the dream that all Israeli mothers and parents have, and we owe it to our children and future generations to act on it."

Questions

In the final portion of the panel, Aronoff and Sarsar responded to questions from the audience, although time restraints let them answer five questions and had to leave 48 questions unanswered.

When asked how students should find unbiased and accurate information about the current conflict, Aronoff dissuaded students from using social media or political advocacy groups, which she said selectively provide information rather than sharing the whole truth.

In response to a question about how to engage sensitive topics such as the current Israel-Hamas war in a workplace or classroom setting, Sarsar said respectful dialogue and a willingness to listen to other perspectives is crucial for anything of value to be gained from discussing with others. He placed a clear distinction between debate, where one side seeks to win a contest, and dialogue, where both sides present their ideas and attempt to come to a greater understanding of the issue

Another question asked how people can expect the U.S. to help Palestinians and Israelis equally when leadership seems to unevenly support Israel. The question referenced a 2014 comment made by then Vice President Biden in which he said that “if there weren’t an Israel, we’d have to invent one,” in reference to the strategic importance of Israel for the U.S.

Aronoff responded by saying that although the U.S. does currently provide stronger support to Israel, the U.S. can help all groups in the region by facilitating peace negotiations and addressing security concerns such as Hamas for Israelis and illegal settlements for Palestinians.

Regardless of how peace comes about, Sarsar said, the time to act is now.

“I’m not interested in peace to come in 200 years, or even 100 years,” Sarsar said. “I want it in my lifetime, in my children’s lifetime. The same for Israeli families, the same for Palestinian families.”

A recording of the webinar can be found on the Serling Institute’s YouTube channel.

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