Israeli, Palestinian work together

Q&A -- Edy Kaufman and Manuel Hassassian



EDY KAUFMAN — University of Maryland researchers Edy Kaufman and Manuel Hassassian know something about negotiations. One Israeli, the other Palestinian, they sat down and figured out how to teach a class on the Middle East together.

"This arrangement has been difficult at times, but we have learned to make it work," says Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the U.K. and former rector of Bethlehem University in the West Bank. "We see the project as an experiment in conflict resolution, moving from adversarial discourses about the past."

Kaufman, a longtime professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, concurs. "We agree about many things, disagree about others. But we begin with a deep, mutual respect and we bring that to the classroom," he says.

They have been team teaching a summer course - Conflict Resolution: The Israeli-Palestinian Experiment- at College Park since 1993 under the auspices of the university's Center for International Development and Conflict Management, only missing 2000 when Hassassian led the Jerusalem Task Force for the Palestinian negotiators trying to reach a settlement at Camp David.

They answered questions last week a few minutes before beginning another session of this year's course that is taking place as violence escalates throughout their region.

We now have this intense conflict in Lebanon added to instability in Iraq and Afghantistan and the ongoing dispute with Iran over its nuclear program. Doesn't this mean that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not the critical element to peace in the Middle East that it once seemed to be?

Edy Kaufman - From my perspective as an Israeli, the real issue at stake for us is the conflict with the Palestinians. The true conflict before 1948 was two communities fighting over one piece of land. Now, with Israel signing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, that is the one that is left, peace with Syria being of secondary importance. If it were resolved, if the Palestinians had a state, it would open the way for Israel to be recognized by the entire Arab League. So, for us, there is no question that is the key issue. Unfortunately, in these latest events, the fighting in Lebanon, you can see the way Hezbollah has hijacked the international focus, distracting from the Palestinian dimension in the region, let alone the suffering that the Palestinians now endure.

Manuel Hassassian - It is a given that the crux of the problem in the Middle East has always been the Palestinian issue. The essence of the conflict in the region is the question of the Palestinians. That said, I want to make clear that the Palestinians have nothing to do with Hezbollah or what they are doing in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has its own political agenda and it is abusing the Palestinian problem for its own interests. So when we talk about Middle East conflict - regardless of Israel's war in Lebanon or its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan - the Palestinian dimension will always make it possible to create instability unless it is resolved.

Does the Lebanon war mean that the Palestinian issue has been forced into the background? Before the fighting started there, most of the focus was on the Gaza Strip.

Hassassian - Let me make clear that I do sympathize with the Lebanese and totally denounce what Israel is doing in Lebanon. But from my own selfish point of view as a Palestinian, they have hijacked our problem, our 40-year fight for our independence. The killing in Gaza is still going on. So this is hurting our cause.

Kaufman - To bring some context to this, there are serious allegations that the Iranians are connected to Hezbollah's actions, that the Syrians are. And they definitely have their own agendas - Iran to defuse criticism of its nuclear program, Syria because of the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri. Hezbollah themselves have been under the spotlight of the UN because how can you have ministers in a government and at the same time have a private armed force that does not even consult with that government's army? So they have their own agendas and problems and find it useful to use the real issue, which is the suffering of the Palestinian people, for their own benefit.

So you would say that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question would lead to a wider relaxation of tensions in the region?

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