President Barack Obama '83 missed an opportunity early in his administration to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, Derek Shearer, Occidental's Stuart Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs, said during a Tuesday panel discussion on the prospects for resolving the longstanding conflict.
While Obama "said all the right things" and appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace to help negotiate a two-state solution, the president's attention soon moved on to other issues, said Shearer, the former U.S. ambassador to Finland. As a result, he added, "The U.S. is on the verge, if it hasn't happened already, to be bypassed when it comes to events in the Middle East."
The discussion was sponsored by J Street U Occidental, the campus chapter of a grassroots North American network of college-student activists working for peace, security and social justice in the Middle East. The event's other speakers were Anthony Chase, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs; Laurie Brand, USC's Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations; and Daniel May, the national director of J Street U. Oxy J Street U leaders Ethan Weiss '12, Jessie Salter '14, Zach Abels '14, and Hussain Somjee '14 organized the event.
Pro-democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a recent swap between Israel and Hamas of one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, and the latest failed attempt at Palestine statehood recognition at a meeting of the United Nations were among the other issues discussed at the 90-minute event. All of these actions affect the fractious relationship between Israel and the Palestine Authority, as well as the U.S.'s influence on Middle East politics, the panelists said.
May pointed out growing bitterness among Palestinians. In one visit to the Middle East, a Palestinian friend of his pointed to the construction of more Jewish settlements on historic Palestinian land. "‘If this is what peace looks like,' he said, ‘I'd rather have war,'" May said.
However, while peace negotiations in the Middle East have stalled, progress had been made over the years, Shearer pointed out. In 1979, Andrew Young, then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for the Carter administration, was forced to resign after meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. At that time, the PLO was considered a terrorist organization. In comparison, Obama has spoken directly with Mahmoud Abbas, PLO chairman and president of the Palestine Authority.
"So we need to keep engaging," he said.
Chase agreed, adding that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process must grow from ordinary citizens. "Unless change happens at the ground level among Americans, Palestinians and Israelis, change will not happen," he said.
The College will be the site of more community events focusing on the Middle East. On Monday, October 31 at 12:30 p.m., incoming diplomacy and world affairs faculty member Hoss Bunai will give a talk, "Arab Spring, Persian Winter: Making Sense of (Counter) Revolutions in the Middle East." That event will be held in the Clapp Library's Braun Room.
On Tuesday, November 1 at 6:30 p.m., the Oxy student group OneVoice Occidental will host a lecture by Chase on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a Skype conversation with Israeli and Palestinian youth peace activists, in Johnson 200. On Wednesday, November 2, J Street U Occidental will host Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, whose members will talk about and show video of their work in the West Bank. That event will be held at 7 p.m. in Johnson 201.