Middle East Peace Talks: Why There's Hope the Bitter Divide Can Be Bridged

Article excerpt

A university seminar involving Palestinian, Israeli, and American students showed us that even passionate disagreement can be surmounted with a universal language of democratic moderation and mutuality.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a misnomer. The real political chasm actually runs down the middle of both societies, dividing them into separate camps of conflict and peace.

The camp of conflict, for instance - both in its Israeli and Palestinian versions - is driven by a visionary messianism, the rejection of liberal values, a politics of violence, and the cult of death. This common zealotry has imposed a zero-sum reality of "all or nothing" on everyone else, including those majorities in both countries who would prefer to live together in peace.

A common language of peace

The Israeli and Palestinian peace camps also share a common language, one of mutual recognition, shared values, and national co- existence. As direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis get under way today in Washington, it's vital that these peace camps speak to one another in that common tongue. And amid widespread cynicism over America's role in brokering these talks, it's also essential for all parties to understand why the United States can act as a sincere agent for peaceful change.

This is hard to do over the drumbeats of hate and enmity.

But it is possible to create conditions that promote dialogue across the bitter divide. We know, because we witnessed it during a university seminar on democratic culture that we simultaneously offered to Palestinian, Israeli, and American students.

The content of the seminar is the history of American democracy, discussed, debated, and interpreted by students in their respective classrooms during the past spring semester at Al Quds University, Tel Aviv University, and Oberlin College, through a common textbook, video-conferences, and a shared website. In July, all three classes then gathered at Oberlin where they continued to explore, face-to- face, the foundations of moderation, civility, and tolerance.

Essential brokers

Americans once again proved to be essential brokers in our efforts to speak to one another, hosting the summer workshop and raising the funds that made the project possible. But American mediation went much deeper this time. It was now based on nearly 250 years of their own national experience, which provided Israelis and Palestinians alike with historical lessons on how to grapple with seemingly unbridgeable differences, create institutions that encourage the peaceful resolution of conflict, and develop public values based on mutual acceptance and respect. These were not just matters for philosophical reflection, students learned, but practical methods for building a decent public life.

The history of American democracy is not, of course, an unqualified success story. Nor did anyone pretend it was.

Students began the course by learning that while "all men are created equal," white male property-owners were far more so. They saw how bigotry and arrogance resulted in a bloody civil war between 1861 and 1865. They read about the arrest and conviction in 1918 of trade unionists peacefully protesting the government's support for one side in the Russian civil war. They studied the Supreme Court's decision of 1944 justifying the mass internment of citizens of Japanese descent. And they read the "Southern Manifesto" issued in 1956 by southern members of Congress who opposed attempts to end the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.

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Learning from mistakes

But what most impressed us about the accumulated effect of these American failures was how such mistakes were recognized, and how the nation resolved not to repeat them.

Truthfully, it was difficult to know if Israelis and Palestinians would be able to study such subjects together, and what they would take from the experience. …