Nazarian Center's "Israel in 3-D" event features lively panels, keynote by Dennis Ross

Nazarian Center

U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross (left) being interviewed by Dalia Dassa Kaye of The RAND Corporation. (Photo: Jacob Goldberg/ UCLA.)

The Y&S Nazarian Center's annual "one-day university" on Israel featured lively panel discussions of the Israeli high-tech sector, contemporary arts and the Jewish Renewal movement. In his keynote speech, U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross urged the Israelis and Palestinians to each take steps to assure the other of their commitment to the peace process.

The “narrative issues” of refugees and Jerusalem “go to the heart of self-definition and identity” of both Israelis and Palestinians, said Ambassador Dennis Ross, and must be addressed first in peace negotiations.

by Jacob Goldberg and Maura Resnick

UCLA International Institute, May 23, 2014 — The annual “Israel in 3D — 2014” event of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies was held at UCLA on Sunday, May 4. Now in its third year, the all-day educational program was attended by 275 community members, students, faculty and staff.

The program included three panels on diverse topics and a keynote address by veteran Middle East diplomat Ambassador Dennis Ross. Ross was subsequently interviewed by Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of Middle East public policy at The RAND Corporation.

Discussion summary

The day began with a look at Israel’s high tech economy and how the country can sustain economic growth in the future. “Start-Up Nation”: Is the Success Sustainable?” featured three executives of Israeli Internet companies (two new start-ups, Zeekit and iAngels, and the well-established Wix) who discussed their business models and plans for growth. An Israeli economist then presented a macroeconomic view of the nation’s economy, highlighting such challenges to sustained growth as the need for educational improvements and greater inclusion of Israeli Arabs and orthodox Jews into the labor force.

The second panel, “Israeli Arts and Entertainment: Now Playing on the Global Stage,” examined the vibrant Israeli art scene and the global reach and impact of Israeli arts. Panelists from the worlds of television and film, visual arts, contemporary dance and literature described their own and other artists’ projects and why these works resonate with both Israeli and global audiences.

After lunch and the keynote address, the final panel of the day – “Israeli Judaism: The Jewish Renewal Movement in Israel” — explored the evolving social phenomenon of Jewish Renewal (Hitchadshut Yehudit), in which self-identified secular Israeli Jews from all walks of life are studying Jewish texts and incorporating Jewish traditions into a uniquely Israeli, non-orthodox life. In a lively conversation moderated by Jewish Journal President David Suissa, three speakers from different organizations involved in Hitchadshut Yehudit discussed the movement’s origins and significance for both Israeli society and diaspora-Israeli relations.

Narrative issues must precede core issues in peace negotiations, argues Ross

Ambassador Dennis Ross began his discussion of the peace process by lauding the courage of Secretary of State John Kerry's commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He described Kerry as well-qualified to make such an attempt due to his familiarity with the leaders of each party. The secretary of state has known Benjamin Netanyahu since they were both students at MIT; he has also known Mahmoud Abbas for many years. However, Ross also pointed out that Kerry’s decision to pursue a final status agreement immediately may not have been the best strategy.

The ambassador asked, “Could [Kerry] create a relationship between the parties that would allow them to take on the core issues of the conflict?” Recalling his experiences as a mediator of several rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, beginning with the Oslo process, the speaker conceded that was essential to resolve the core issues of the conflict: borders and security. However, he argued that these issues cannot be resolved without first addressing the “narrative issues” of refugees and Jerusalem. These issues, pointed out Ross, “go to the heart of self-definition and identity” of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Roots of mutual disbelief. The distinction between core issues and narrative issues, noted Ross, highlights the fact that while progress has steadily been made on the former, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have consistently avoided coming to an understanding on the latter. The uneven progress on the two sets of issues has created a context in which both leaders and their constituents lack belief in the potential of the peace process to succeed.

The speaker described several instances in which this doubt harmed the most recent negotiations mediated by Kerry. First, in order to prevent Abbas from seeking symbolic recognition in any more international bodies, Netanyahu acquiesced to Abbas’ stipulation that negotiations would proceed only if Israel released several pre-Oslo prisoners.

This was particularly difficult for Netanyahu to do because those prisoners represented a time period in which the Palestinian Liberation Organization was in an explicit state of military conflict with Israel. The Israeli prime minister agreed to release the prisoners in order to start negotiations, but as the talks neared their end without a concrete peace plan in sight, he reversed his decision.

Abbas also made decisions during the negotiations that fueled Israeli doubts about his commitment to the process and hampered its chances of success. Ross recounted how Abbas conducted negotiations on a unification agreement with Hamas during the negotiations with Israel without informing Netanyahu. Although Abbas and his Fatah Party will ultimately need to unite with Hamas in order to validate his claim that he represents all Palestinians, observed Ross, his decision to do so in the midst of negotiations — and without Netanyahu’s knowledge — was another example of the distrust fostered by and between the parties to the conflict.

The effects of their leaders’ actions are palpable within the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Recent polling statistics cited by Ross indicate that while 69 percent of Israelis desire a two-state solution to the conflict, 91 percent do not believe that it will ever come to fruition. Similarly, whereas Palestinian support for the Oslo process has fluctuated between 75 and 80 percent in past decades, it now stands at just above 50 percent.

Changing the context of the peace process. In order to make possible a permanent resolution of the core issues of the conflict, Ross asserted that the context of the conflict must be changed. He offered some examples of how this can be accomplished.

First, Israel must begin building only in those territories that it believes will be part of the Israeli state following the conclusion of the peace process. Furthermore, Israel should continue redeployments, gradually transferring authority over parts of the West Bank from the Israel Defense Force to the Palestinian Authority. In turn, Ross stressed, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” because the creation of a “Palestinian state and a binational state is not a two-state outcome.”

Ross summarized these steps by describing the way forward as “conflict management rather than conflict resolution.” In addition to taking actions to build mutual assurance, conflict management also requires each party not to demand anything of the other that would be too difficult to grant within the given context.

There is no deadline for a permanent status agreement, concluded Ross. “No one’s going anywhere,” he said, estimating that the odds of a third intifada were low. He accordingly urged each party to concentrate on setting the stage for a permanent peace by pursuing conflict management and acts of mutual assurance.