Two of the keenest American academic minds on the politics of the Middle East -- one Jewish, the other Arab -- debated the present and future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Monday evening, and reached agreement on at least three points.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is inept and unpopular with the great majority of his people.
The American media, especially CNN, are doing a terrible job of covering the conflict and are thoroughly biased. However, the perceived bias is in favor of Palestinian "terrorists" in Jewish eyes, and is partial to Israeli "oppressors" from the Arab view.
Israelis and Palestinians regard each other with deep suspicion and hostility, but their mutual interests dictate that they ultimately reach an understanding.
Facing each other and more than 200 listeners at the UCLA Hillel Forum were political scientist Steven Spiegel of UCLA, an early Clinton adviser on the Middle East, and historian Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago, who was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid conference.
Both professors are leaders of international relations centers at their respective universities and have written authoritative books in their fields.
The event was the last of six in a lecture series on "Muslim-Jewish Relations: Harmony & Discord Throughout History," sponsored by Hillel and various Jewish, Arab and academic organizations.
In a generally pessimistic survey of the current situation, Spiegel saw some hope in the newly proposed report of an international commission, headed by former U.S. Senate Democratic leader, George J. Mitchell.
The report calls for an immediate halt in violence, followed by a cooling-off period, a complete stop to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and denunciation of terrorism and apprehension of terrorists by the Palestinian authority.
Khalidi said that these points were not enough to satisfy Palestinian demands. In his criticism of Israeli and American peace plans, he argued that even the presumed and widely hailed concessions by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David last year would leave Palestinians with a series of disconnected "Bantustans," or slices, in its territory and East Jerusalem.
Pessimism ran deepest on the Palestinian demand for the right of return of some 3.7 million Arab refugees to Israel, which is two to three times the number who lived in Palestine in 1948. The refugee issue is seen as a basic existential issue for both sides, and presents an even more complex problem than the future status of Jerusalem, the speakers agreed.
Spiegel said he regretted in particular the many opportunities lost by Palestinian leaders in reaching peaceful solutions.
The UCLA professor designated an indecisive Arafat as the primary culprit in the failure of recent peace efforts, asking, "Where is the Palestinian Nelson Mandela?"
Khalidi, while not accepting this appraisal, cited a change in Palestinian leadership as one of the requirements of a possible peace, along with U.S. pressure on Israel and a change in Israeli public opinion. Spiegel said that one sorrowful aspect of the second intifada over the last six months has been to destroy the peace camp in Israel and to elect, in effect, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He added,"Sadly, both sides have lost their sense of interdependence, but they will either fall together, or triumph together."
Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson and student Adam Rosenthal moderated the intense but civil two-hour debate.