Correction appended: A previous version of this article inaccurately described J Street.
With Palestinians headed to the United Nations General Assembly in September to ask for recognition as a state, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took the foreground at a discussion on campus last night.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the University’s chapter of J Street, a national pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, and featured several professors who are experts on the topic. Addressing a mostly student audience of about 40 gathered in the Michigan League, the professors discussed various aspects of the conflict, placing particular emphasis on the upcoming U.N. resolution in September.
Sarai Aharoni, a lecturer of Judaic Studies at the University, said during the discussion that September will be a landmark moment in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In addition to seeking state recognition from the U.N., Palestinians are also planning on holding elections to elect a new president and parliament.
For Israel, Aharoni said, these developments will be the end of the country’s ongoing attitude of denial toward the conflict.
“There’s this gradual move from silence to an understanding,” she told the audience. “(There’s) an acknowledgment that September might be a turning point in regional politics.”
Chief among Israel’s priorities is an effort to stop a proposal by Western Europe that would see the implementation of a two-state solution, Aharoni said.
“We see Israel as beginning to work on a diplomatic front to stop this initiative,” she said.
But Aharoni also pointed out that Israelis tend to regard Palestinian relations as similar to confronting a natural disaster and something that can’t be overcome.
“The idea of a Palestinian state is conflated with natural disasters like fires and earthquakes,” Aharoni said. “The use of these metaphors makes us think that Israelis think about (Palestinians) as something that’s totally out of control.”
According to Aharoni, the most likely outcome of the September resolution will be the continuation of the conflict without the two parties reaching an agreement. Under this scenario, Aharoni said, “both sides continue with what we know as unilateral measures … the conflict will not end, it will transform.”
Regardless of the outcome, Aharoni said violence is unavoidable. The only question is how much violence will occur, she said.
The second panelist, Mark Tessler, the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University, took a different approach in discussing the regional tension. He emphasized how the recent uprisings in places like Egypt and Libya could have an impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
As Tessler pointed out, the Israeli-Palestinian issue isn’t a motivating factor of those involved in the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East.
“(For) the people who are coming out in Egypt, Israel is not part of the equation at all,” Tessler said.
However, despite Israel’s non-involvement in the developments thus far, the uprisings in the Middle East present an opportunity for Israel to take a stance on the issue, which could have repercussions on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Tessler said.
“The question is, how should … Israel respond?” Tessler asked the panel. “Is this a challenge or an opportunity? Does it change things in a fundamental sense?”
According to panelist Victor Lieberman, the Marvin B. Becker Collegiate Professor of History at the University, the recent revolts and the Palestinians’ push for statehood each spell trouble for Israel. The resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may lead to the emergence of latent anti-Israel sentiment that Mubarak’s regime suppressed, he said.
“Democracy in Egypt will create a larger space for (anti-Israeli) voices to be heard than was the case when Mubarak was in power,” Lieberman said.
According to Lieberman, “The Arab world at large … is pushing for a more principled anti-Israel position.”
But Lieberman said he believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be settled by an external force.
“The Palestinians won’t accept any concessions,” Lieberman said. “I don’t see how the situation will stabilize without external intervention from America.”
In an interview after the meeting, LSA junior Dafna Eisbruch, an executive board member of J Street UMich, said she was pleased with the diversity of opinions expressed at the panel.
“I was really grateful to the panelists for putting some serious analysis into the prompts we gave them,” Eisbruch said.