March 11, 2009

Expert Explores Israeli-Palestinian Affairs

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Robert Malley, the program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C., addressed a modest crowd inside Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell auditorium yesterday evening.
Malley, who is widely regarded as an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gave an insider’s perspective on the nature of the crisis and offered a uniquely anecdotal appraisal of the problems currently facing Israel, Palestine and the United States.
Malley first warned against rushing to generalizations, saying “there is no such thing as an average Israeli or Palestinian.” He then briefly explored the shared history of the disputed territory, acknowledging that for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, the region represents two distinct cultural narratives, both of which hold historical legitimacy.

[img_assist|nid=36006|title=Open handsRobert Malley presents his lecture “The U.S., Israel and Palestine,” in Goldwin Smith yesterday.|desc=Robert Malley presents his lecture “The U.S., Israel and Palestine,” in Goldwin Smith yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Despite this, Malley observed, it is difficult for individual Israelis or Palestinians to recognize their commonalities amidst the present violence. What Israel sees as a homeland, Palestinians see as “a continued dispossession and occupation.”
“Put yourself in their shoes,” Malley continued. “It isn’t surprising they don’t have confidence in each other.”
However, rather than dwelling on the question of regional legitimacy, Malley chose to focus on the more recent conflicts.
Having served as the director for democracy, human rights and humanitarian affairs at the National Security Council, assistant to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, Malley experienced first-hand what he perceives as the inefficacy of U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle-East.
“[Since 1993 the US has] tried everything under virtually every configuration [and] everything has failed,” Malley said.
One major explanation for this failure, Malley said, is the inability of foreign governments like the U.S. to effectively empathize with the Israeli and Palestinian conditions. Malley witnessed this inefficiency in the 2000 Camp David Accords, which he helped organize.
“Most members of the peace-team were Jewish … I’m one of them,” Malley said. “Not a single one of us understood the Muslim connection to Jerusalem … It was totally theoretical.”
Later, Malley expanded this notion of detachment, noting that “so much of this [conflict] is about psychology. It’s about how these compromises will be interpreted.”
Malley recognized a second major failure in the exclusionary foreign-policy habits of the Bush administration. In particular, Malley denounced the adversarial quality of the past eight years and expressed his hope that President Obama would reverse this trend by establishing dialogue with Syria and Iran.
When questioned on the United States’ objectivity on the conflict, Malley confronted the idea of an “American Agenda.”
“It would be dishonest to deny the role of domestic politics. The U.S. does not act as an honest broker. [It] is far closer to Israel [than Palestine], but [because of this] it can be an effective mediator.”
A question-and-answer period followed the talk for nearly half an hour, during which students voiced both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian sentiments.
Despite having polarizing opinions, students agreed that Malley’s presentation was even-handed.
Audience member Hussam Abu-Libdeh grad, who is from the West Bank, related the story of his grandparents, for whom he now needs several Israeli-issued IDs to visit.
“Palestinians are stuck in a state of despair,” said Abu-Libdeh. “People tend to forget the human aspect and the effects on daily life.”
Although he feels that Israel is to blame for excessively punishing Palestinians for the recent rocket attacks, Abu-Libdeh felt Malley’s analysis was fair and “even handed.”
That sentiment was shared by Shai Akabas ’09, president of Cornell Israel Public Affair’s Committee.
“[Malley] effectively explained American’s strategic relationship with Israel. I did not necessarily agree with every one of his view, but I do believe that Malley desires at heart an object and even handed resolution to the conflict,” Akabas said.