Shai Feldman, the head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, painted what he called a “rosy picture” of Israeli-Palestinian relations following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
As part of the Jeffrey and Susan Stern Lectureship for Middle East and Israeli Affairs, Feldman briefed an audience of about 40 people in the Slifka Center chapel Tuesday night on Israel’s current political environment. He said the change in the Palestinian leadership had resulted in an environment where Israeli leaders can “take risks.”
Feldman couched issues confronting Israel today in terms of demographics, citing Israel’s concern over losing a religious majority in the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as partially responsible for the country’s willingness to compromise on issues such as Jerusalem’s unity and the question of a Palestinian state.
“If the price of unity is 200,000 Arab voters, some think it’s better that we divide Jerusalem,” Feldman said.
A cornerstone of Feldman’s analysis was Israel’s disengagement plan, which he said is centered on its security fence and last October’s decision to withdraw from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank. Since the election for Arafat’s successor, Feldman said Israeli leaders have been more optimistic about this plan’s effectiveness.
But Feldman cautioned against excessive optimism. Though he said recent polls indicated that both Israelis and Palestinians were eager to return to the negotiating table, Feldman cited obstacles on both sides.
“Israelis need to be convinced at a fundamental level that this transformation from violence to negotiation is genuine and that it will not be easy to reverse,” Feldman said. “Palestinians need evidence that the process won’t be frozen in the middle.”
During his talk, Feldman highlighted the complex nature of the peace process. Though he said Israelis and Palestinians are on the verge of a practical compromise, the jury is still out on a “symbolic” level.
“Both sides are being asked to give up dreams,” he said. “Israel’s giving up its historical right to the land and Palestine’s giving up the mythology that they will one day return to their homeland.”
Amanda Elbogen ’07 and Ricky Leiter ’06, the presidents of the Yale Friends of Israel, said they appreciated Feldman’s non-partisan take on the conflict.
“He’s Israeli, but he looked at both sides of the issue on a larger level,” Leiter said. “He took himself out of the equation.”
Feldman has served on the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters and is a member of the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Board of Directors of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.