By Ina Kosova ’16
It was early in the morning on April 8, 2014, and I was trying to remain composed and still in my chair, without craning my neck to stare at the photographs on the wall. Looking around me, I felt I had stepped directly into the now legendary photograph of President Obama, his military advisors and Secretary Clinton on the night the president ordered the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. There was the same oval mahogany table in front of me, the same series of screens on the wall; the clocks that told the time in Kabul and Baghdad, and the tiny monitor display that had been flipped from SECRET to UNCLASSIFIED once we entered the room. And of course, sitting around this conference table, in one of the Pentagon’s many rooms, were members of the Joint Staff— the Iran Division, Syria Affairs, Israel & Palestine Affairs and Egypt Affairs desks officers, in full uniform. This was day two of Peace, War and Defense (PWAD) 670’s trip to Washington, D.C.
Students in Shai Tamari’s PWAD 670 course, “Challenges to Peace-Making in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” have grappled throughout the spring semester with some of the complex, intractable issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discussions have ranged from the importance of narrative and identity in evaluating political options to the more concrete aspects of the conflict, such as settlements, lobby groups and Israeli and Palestinian internal politics. There have been instances throughout the semester in which the class expressed frustration at the disparity between the nuanced study of the conflict that we, as undergraduate students, are pursuing in this course and the simplistic representation of the conflict in both U.S. media and political and diplomatic rhetoric. The trip to Washington, D.C., served as our opportunity to engage with the different groups responsible for pushing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward. We met with them with the confidence and tools that we have developed through our coursework, and we were prepared, if necessary, to be able to challenge their perspectives.
Monday, April 7, 2014
The first day of meetings in Washington, D.C., began with a short walk from our hotel to the offices of the Aspen Institute, an organization that seeks to provide a nonpartisan venue to deal with critical issues. We met with Mickey Bergman, director of Middle East programs. He spoke on Aspen Institute’s attempts to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in launching the Middle East Investment Initiative, a $228 million loan guarantee program targeted at small and medium-sized businesses in the Palestinian Territories. Bergman offered an interesting perspective on some of the more innovative diplomatic efforts targeted at the conflict.
After the meeting at the Aspen Institute, we headed to Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Sitting in a particularly small room, we were able to take part in a roundtable discussion with Zach Cafritz, legislative assistant for Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), and Stephen Lassiter, senior legislative assistant for Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN). The discussion focused on how lobbying groups function on Capitol Hill and how these groups affect the force with which members of Congress wish to take on a variety of issues. We then headed to the office of Congressman Jim Moran himself, who spoke to some of the difficulties that he perceived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would face, particularly on the Hill.
Later, my classmates and I met with Mira Resnick, senior professional staff member for the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Resnick spoke about the way in which the House Committee on Foreign Affairs perceives the current peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as well as on the absence of a vocal pro-Palestinian lobby on the Hill. She also discussed issues related to Iran and Hizb’allah sanctions.
That same afternoon, our class visited the offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). At AIPAC, the class met with Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s current leadership development director and the individual responsible, in the 1980s, for developing AIPAC’s student activism program with a focus on college campuses. Kessler offered a thorough overview of AIPAC’s perspective on Middle East issues.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The day began particularly early on Tuesday morning with the first stop at the Pentagon. We started with a 45-minute tour. We were all impressed with our Air Force guide as he led the group through the corridors of the Pentagon while walking backwards, never once looking behind him! We then met with Mr. Bill Wunderle, chief of the Iran Division for the Joint Strategic Plans and policy directorate of the Joint Staff, along with seven military officers from all services who offered their perspectives on Hamas, Iran, Syria, Egypt and U.S.-Israel military ties.
Our last meeting took place near Georgetown with Maen Rashid Areikat, the ambassador of the PLO Delegation to the United States. Ambassador Areikat offered a unique perspective as to the challenges facing the pro-Palestinian lobby in the United States, as well as the challenges facing the Arab-American community in general in terms of integration into U.S. society. He also spoke on the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation and discussed some of the challenges he perceived the Palestinian side is currently facing.
In conclusion, it is a very different experience to read about a conflict and deal with it in a classroom than to engage with the individuals responsible for turning the theory of conflict resolution into policy and negotiation strategy. It was an amazing experience to be able to question members of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on the implications of Iran’s nuclear program for Israel’s security and then to head to the PLO and discuss Kerry’s prospective for success after Ambassador Areikat had gotten off the phone with individuals briefing him on the state of negotiations. It was also particularly rewarding to be informed enough through our coursework to be able to not only hold informed discussions, but also respectfully challenge some of the assumptions and positions put forth by some of the policy-makers who we met in Washington, D.C.