November 8, 2016

The Politics of Conflict in the Middle East


In this year’s George McGovern Lecture, the historian and former Israeli politician Shlomo Ben-Ami discussed “The Politics of Conflict in the Middle East” at SIPA on November 1.

Ben-Ami is SIPA’s current McGovern Professor of International and Public Affairs, a one-year visiting position for scholars who show a deep commitment to international peace and cooperation.

The lecture was preceded by remarks from Dean Merit E. Janow and Provost John H. Coatsworth, who introduced Ben-Ami as a “scholar, educator, diplomat, and champion of cooperation and peace.”

Ben-Ami opened his talk by asking, if the Middle East will make peace with itself anytime soon. He then discussed the role of diplomacy in peacemaking.

“History suggests that diplomacy produces results only when backed by power,” he said. “Diplomatic solutions only work when parties get trapped in deadlocks.”

Ben-Ami called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “a clash of rights and memory” in which both parties long for the same landscapes and “compete for the ethos of exile.”

This makes the situation irreconcilable, he said.

Ben-Ami said we are now in an “era of rising mass emotions, fear and humiliation of communities and civilizations,” adding that globalization has also propelled group adherence to identities.

This sense of external threat to group identity has been presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an excuse for actions, said Ben-Ami, but—citing “the morally corrosive effects of the occupation of the Palestinian people”—he suggested that the real threat to Israel is internal.

Looking at conflict across the region, Ben-Ami also noted that autocracies have an existential problem with peace processes that would lead to domestic political change.

In the case of ISIS and other extremist groups, the professor said, the only “true antidote” is the existence of strong and functional states.

“There is nothing more dangerous in international relations than a powerful nation that is insecure,” he said.

Asked for a recommendation for making peace between Israel and Palestine, Ben-Ami said that there needs to be a distinction between trust and respect in the peace process.

“In Israel and Palestine there is a lack of seeing the other side as equal to you with equal needs,” he said. “Building trust between the occupied and the occupier is impossible; what is important is respect.”

— Kasumi Takahashi MPA ’17

Pictured: Shlomo Ben-Ami (foreground), John C. Coatsworth // photo by Barbara Alper