The war in Israel and Gaza has already taken a huge human toll. On Friday at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, leading experts from Harvard and beyond discussed the intractably complicated questions around what moderator Tarek Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance, described as the latest, bloody chapter in the “seemingly never-ending” conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: What happened? What does it mean? And what comes next?

The panel included Edward Djerejian, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria and former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs; Shai Feldman, the Raymond Frankel Professor of Israeli Politics and Society at Brandeis University; and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

The event was a reminder of the role of an institution like the Kennedy School, Dean Doug Elmendorf said in introducing the panel. “I think it’s the responsibility of a university, it’s the responsibility of the Kennedy School at this time, to take on hard issues and to do so with rigor, substance, and evidence, but also with compassion,” he said. “Compassion for people for whom these issues are not abstract. They’re not things one reads about from afar.”

At the end of a week in which disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian issue on campuses all over America spilled over into something more, the event provided a welcome, if somber, occasion to provide, in the words of Telhami, explanation but not justification. “If we don't explain,” he said, “then we are doomed.”

Here are excerpts of the participants' remarks, lightly edited:
 

Tarek Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance and director of the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Whatever one’s take or position on the thorny issues that constitute the seemingly never-ending struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, the indiscriminate murder of civilians, the taking of hostages, the threats to execute those hostages have caused all of us to shudder in horror. But as we mourn the dead innocents of the state of Israel, we also fear what is to come for the people of Gaza. The Netanyahu government has shut off Gaza's water supply and its electricity. It’s ordered a civilian evacuation of the northern part of the territory in preparation for what one Israeli general called in the early days of this conflict, “opening the gates of hell.”

Neither Egypt nor Israel is willing or able to take in the hundreds of thousands who need to escape the military operations to come. And the result is potentially a humanitarian crisis of profound gravity with the potential to cost thousands of lives and to inflame sentiments across the Arab region. And in fact, already we are beginning to see demonstrations throughout the Arab and Muslim world. It’s not, however, just sentiments that risk becoming inflamed. Reports are trickling in of the role that the Islamic Republic of Iran may have played, or its proxies may have played, in enabling what happened [the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7]. And it’s possible that if those reports were verified, we could see ourselves facing a situation where Israel feels compelled to respond militarily to what it would deem as a clear act of war. We’re already hearing some Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq threatening to get involved.

Already, Hezbollah and Israel are trading artillery fire on the southern Lebanese border. And so as horrible as it is to contemplate and as horrible as the situation already today is, we may soon find that the theater of war has been widened far beyond Israel with the potential to swallow up the entire region.

Tarek Masoud

“[A]s horrible as it is to contemplate and as horrible as the situation already today is, we may soon find that the theater of war has been widened far beyond Israel with the potential to swallow up the entire region.”

Tarek Masoud

Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs

In my long experience, there have been traumatic events in this region that—where the danger is so replete, and all the negatives are so replete—we have to live through the horrors. And we’re living through a great horror right now.

But these catalytic events often in diplomacy lead to opportunities. And from my vantage point, and it may seem like an illusion right now, what we're witnessing is so consequential in stirring the chessboard of the Middle East that it may—and this is the only word of hope I have tonight—that it may lead to a shifting of conjugations of groups and countries; that there may be another opportunity for diplomacy to arrive at an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Now, having said that, that requires leadership. That requires leadership on all sides. I'm going to be very blunt in my opinion: I think we have a deficit in leadership today. I’m not going to name names, but there’s a deficit in leadership. But I have seen when leaders are ready to take risks for peace, things can happen. We’re far from that.

When there is not a political horizon out there that at least is being talked about or aspired to for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, bad things happen.

“I'm going to be very blunt in my opinion: I think we have a deficit in leadership today.”

Edward Djerejian
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Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland

The puzzle for Hamas’s attack honestly was not that they’re capable of doing it—they’ve done many things in the past, though not on this scale. The real puzzle was, how did they have the capability to do it and how did the Israelis fail to detect it and to prevent it?

And that’s really the puzzle. That’s the puzzle of the timing. Now, from my point of view, if I’m looking at [Hamas’s] calculus, to the extent that there was a timing related to their action, I’m looking at what’s happening with the occupation. … The amount of despair is enormous in part because it’s been 56 years of occupation and they have not been able to do anything. And today the chance of an independent state of Palestine is much lower than it was 10 years ago, and they’re looking at no hope in sight. They were hoping the Biden administration will be different from Trump. They didn’t get anything on that. They were hoping that Arab states would exchange peace with Israel for ending of occupation. That didn’t look like that was going to happen. The opposite was going to happen.

So, there was an enormous amount of despair taking place, and that’s when militant groups exploit it. Because if there’s no hope for peace that’s the perfect opportunity for militant groups to say, “But you see, we can do something about it.”

“There was an enormous amount of despair taking place, and that’s when militant groups exploit it.”

Shibley Telhami
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Shai Feldman, the Raymond Frankel Professor of Israeli Politics and Society at Brandeis University

I think that Israel was surprised because it really completely misunderstood. It had basically thought that it has constructed some kind of deterrence equation with Hamas and Gaza … . But I think that completely misunderstood the nature of deterrence because there is no factor in the deterrence equation that is more important than the issue of motivation.

Gaza has been a gigantic jail: 2.3 million people who have very, very limited capacity to leave and travel. The idea that the other side … would accept this indefinitely was, I think, a big illusion. By the way, not different from the illusion that was the basic source of surprise in 1973. What Israelis underestimated was that, for Egypt, the return of the territory that Israel controlled since the 1967 war was worth the huge costs that President Sadat actually predicted would be associated with the attempt to liberate the territory. … Israel completely did not understand the real nature of deterrence and how deterrence is fragile in a situation where the other side has such strong motivation to violate.

[T]here is a lot of resemblance between the strategic surprise that Israel suffered now and the strategic surprise that Israel suffered in 1973. But there is a monumental difference between the two situations....  When President Sadat went to Israel in November ’77, his major point was, “We understand that you have a legitimate security concern. Let’s talk about how we meet your legitimate security concerns in a way that’s not at our expense.” This is a monumental difference. Because Hamas is still committed to Israel’s destruction…. This is where Israel is right now. Israel is in a predicament. It doesn’t have an Egypt solution.

“[T]here is no factor in the deterrence equation that is more important than the issue of motivation.”

Shai Feldman
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Banner image: (left to right) Tarek Masoud, Edward Djerejian, Shibley Telhami, and Shai Feldman. Photos by Martha Stewart.

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