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Flatiron Hot! News | October 19, 2017

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Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Blondheim at Truman Institute Seminar Highlights Counter-Intuitive Steps for Mideast Peace

Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Blondheim at Truman Institute Seminar Highlights Counter-Intuitive Steps for Mideast Peace
Tod Shapiro

Reported by Elliot Frost and Tod Shapiro for the Flatiron Hot! News

At a recent event that Flatiron Hot! News reporters had a chance to observe in New York City, respected Israeli scholar Menahem Blondheim of the Truman Institute of Hebrew University in Jerusalem discussed out-of-the-box, counter-intuitive approaches as a way to jump-start a path to Middle East peace. The event, hosted by Seth Buchwald of Alliance Bernstein at their midtown office, was attended by benefactors and friends of Hebrew University, who were eager to hear what Blondheim had to say.

In his talk, Blondheim reviewed potential new directions at the Truman Institute in guiding its research efforts. Named after the Israel-supporting U.S. President who went against the advice of his own State Department in recognizing Israel at its founding, the Institute takes a decidedly non-partisan approach to original research on Mideast issues. New initiatives include a greater focus on Middle Eastern social media usage, and changing the status quo strategies on how to achieve peace. In particular, he noted the three main practices that, thus far, have failed to bring peace over the last half-century. These practices include increasing economic cooperation, more dialogue, and avoiding any talk of religion. Mr. Blondheim argued that these techniques have consistently failed to bring peace, as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shia schisms continue to simmer at dangerous levels.

On economics, Blondheim pointed out that many countries have substantial economic incentives to avoid war. This is best seen in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, who both rely on oil as a major part of their economies, and free access to the Arabian gulf to export it. Despite the constant threat of war and violence in the region, in actuality, the Arabian gulf itself, at least in recent times, is one of the safest shipping lanes in the world. Nevertheless, instead of there being peace between the two countries, they simply export their mutual hatred in a number of proxy wars throughout the region – but in a way that avoids shutting down their oil trade. Thus economic cooperation, such as it is, has not served to build peace elsewhere in the region.

Blondheim also pointed out the limitations of the many efforts at direct dialogue between the warring parties over the years. He cautioned the audience about the limitation of face-to-face direct negotiations, which have often led nowhere or actually increased tensions. Although he conceded that dialogue can certainly be an important tool, direct contact between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority is often tense, if not outright hostile. He provided the example of the “shuttle diplomacy”, using intermediaries, between the Syrians and the Israelis that continues to this day despite the conflict in Syria , which has been effective in keeping the lid on violence, without any direct contact. He also pointed out that the Israeli-Palestinian Authority negotiations, occurring on and off for many years, have had limited and inconclusive success in advancing end-stage agreements and, if anything, have moved affairs backwards.

Lastly, there is the religious facet of the conflict. Traditionally, the leaders of the two sides have avoided talk of religion due to the role of religion in exacerbating the conflict. However, simply ignoring a major theme, if not the actual critical element of the whole conflict, will do no one any favors as Blondheim seemed to imply. Also, the three major Abrahamic faiths involved in the conflict ultimately desire world peace, thus providing a point of reconciliation where there was once conflict. Why not play this card if, possible? Drawing on the positive and pro-reconciliation strains in all three religions, instead of bypassing religion totally, might actually serve to bring the sides together, he suggested.

Blondheim also touched on the critical role of social media as being, perhaps, even more influential than the often inflammatory and monolithic state media that blankets so much of the region with false information and incitement to violence. In the open discussion after Blondheim’s presentation, he suggested that the states and interested parties had to pursue major efforts to counter, or at least compete with, the poisonous flow of information in social media. He suggested that major research efforts on the effect of social media, and new efforts to contain or steer it in a positive direction, should be a source of everybody’s efforts.

To observers of the seminar, it is clear there are no easy answers that guarantee solutions to the conflict in the Middle East. But, it was encouraging to see that a long-time non-partisan player like the Truman Institute is at least questioning long-time methods in an effort to jump start positive trends. Certainly, the efforts of people like Blondheim and the Truman Institute must continue if we are to have any chance to move ahead. Only time will tell if the ideas shared today will bring peace tomorrow.