Earlier this month the Liberty Society at our university, with aid from the Jewish Society and the Palestinian Society, arranged a discussion between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. The two diplomats were Michael Freeman, a member of the Israeli embassy, and Meisoon Elshorafa, the political counsellor to the Palestinian Mission UK. It was a landmark event. Two official representatives from either side of a seventy-year-old conflict, sat side by side at a UK university for the first time. The Liberty Society nobly declared this a moment for cooperation, an opportunity to find common ground. Unfortunately, the guests did not seem to get the memo.
For an hour and a half, the two representatives bickered and fought, each sending often personal attacks and insults flying at the other. Common ground was dismissed from the opening statements. Elshorafa accused the Israelis of imprisoning children, and Freeman responded in turn, arguing that his country wished for peace, but Palestine’s insistence on war prevented them from achieving such a goal. In short, it was immediately clear that these two had come to convince, not cooperate. That tone remained set for the rest of the evening. Accusations of Palestinian terrorism went unanswered, as did questions on Israeli settlements breaching international law. By the end it had become almost farcical, with any trace of mutual respect disappearing as the two resorted to direct and conspiratorial attacks. Elshorafa implied the Jews lacked any true historical presence in the Middle East, while Freeman defended his bodyguard detail with allegations against Palestine of funding terrorists who were out to kill him. It was a mess.
Of course, maybe we were the fools to expect anything less. The two sides have been off formal speaking terms for comfortably over a decade now, and a minor event at a campus far away from where the battleground truly is was never likely to change that. Nonetheless, it is disappointing that even at such a small event, reason and cooperation could not prevail. The Liberty Union truly wanted this to present some level of common ground and give some hope for the future. Yet even the student Q&A at the end failed to deliver this, with the majority of questions ultimately being simple disguises for veiled attacks and statements of opinion on the issue.
After all of this, one student simply asked why either side could not admit their country’s faults. With that question he summarised the whole issue with both this debate, and the wider international problem. These events can be arranged a thousand times over, on the biggest world stage or on the tiniest university campus. But no change will be made until each side is willing to admit that they have played a part in this tragedy. From the leaders of Israel and Palestine to the most unknown supporter of either side, everybody must understand that there are at least some shades of grey to this debate. Without that, no progress will ever be made. Conflict will forever govern the region, and discussions such as Wednesday’s will forever be ultimately disappointing.