Even as tensions over the Israel-Hamas war have approached the boiling point on campuses across the United States, Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative has hosted a series of reasoned, respectful, evidence-based discussions exploring the roots of the conflict and its vexing policy dilemmas.   

These conversations with analysts from within Harvard and beyond have ranged across the spectrum of views; hundreds of students have attended each event, and speakers have challenged one another and responded to candid and searching questions. No one interrupted or disrupted. People listened hard. 

The Middle East Initiative (MEI), led by Professor Tarek Masoud and now in its 25th year, has established itself as a respected center for policy analysis on the Middle East and North Africa. The initiative, housed in the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, now boasts more than 30 senior and research fellows—from former Arab prime ministers to senior Israeli military officers—as well as two dozen affiliated faculty from across Harvard University.  

Among the numerous events the MEI team has hosted over the past weeks were three signature forums, stretching over nearly five hours in total. Moderated by Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance at HKS, the conversations dissected the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past century, and assessed potential political paths forward. 

Panelists (from left) Tarek Masoud, Edward Djerejian, Shibley Telhami, and Shai Feldman at a recent JFK Jr. Forum.
Panelists (from left) Tarek Masoud, Edward Djerejian, Shibley Telhami, and Shai Feldman at a recent JFK Jr. Forum.

Masoud, the Wisconsin-born son of Egyptian immigrants who grew up partly in Saudi Arabia, blended his self-effacing Midwestern humor with his deep grasp of the nuances of Middle East issues and passions to spark frank, constructive discussions. 

The first major event  Masoud organized on the conflict was a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School, held less than a week after the Hamas assault on October 7. The event was attended by more than 500 members of the Harvard community and has since racked up more than 90,000 views on the Kennedy School’s YouTube channel. HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf set the tone in his introduction, saying those first days had been searing for many in the HKS community. He said he’d met students who lost family members; others had been targeted with threats.  

 “It is the responsibility of universities, the responsibility of the Kennedy School, at this time to take on hard issues and to do so with rigor, substance, evidence—but also with compassion for those for whom these issues are not abstract, not things one reads about from afar but things that are personal,” Elmendorf said. “I hope we can bring that spirit to today’s discussion, and to the many discussions we need to have and will have in the days and weeks and months ahead. So thank you for that spirit.” 

Professor Tarek Masoud speaking at the JFK Jr. Forum.

“I really want to thank you, the audience, for modeling that this is a place founded on reason and fearless inquiry.”

Professor Tarek Masoud

On the panel of that first Forum was Shibley Telhami, an American born into an Arab family who grew up in the United States and is now the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He emphasized the role of such discussions: “We are academics, we explain. We are social scientists; when we explain why something happened, we are not saying it is justified. Explanation is not justification. But if we don’t explain we are doomed, if we don’t understand the core reasons for things that happened.” 

At first glance, several of the speakers at the HKS events might seem bound to clash. Shai Feldman, an Israeli, leads the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University; Khalil Shikaki is a prominent Palestinian pollster from Ramallah; Egyptian analyst Abdel Monem Said Aly was the longtime director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.  In fact, Feldman, Shikaki, and Said Aly together wrote one of the most respected textbooks on the region, Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East.   

Feldman noted that he had recently concluded a three-year stint as head of a college near Sderot in southern Israel, an area that suddenly became a battleground in the Hamas attack, “so it’s difficult for me to dissociate myself from the personal aspects.”  Feldman pointed to Israel’s failure to recognize Hamas’ growing determination to destroy Israel at any cost, just as Israel had failed to grasp the motivation of Egypt to stage a surprise attack on Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war to win back conquered territory.  

“It is the responsibility of universities, the responsibility of the Kennedy School, at this time to take on hard issues and to do so with rigor, substance, evidence—but also with compassion…”

HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf

Edward Djerejian, who took part in two of the three discussions, brought the experience of a man who served in multiple diplomatic roles for the United States in the Middle East over six decades, among them U.S. ambassador to Israel when it was led by Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, just a year before his assassination in 1995. 

“The only solution will be land for peace,” Djerejian, now a senior fellow in the Middle East Initiative,  said at the second event, on October 23. “We’ve got seven million Palestinians between the [Jordan] River and the Mediterranean. We’ve got seven million Israeli Jews. Neither one is going to go anywhere. The question of dividing the land and establishing a two-state solution—this has to be the political horizon.” 

“The only way out, and I keep repeating this, is what Prime Minister Rabin told me when I was ambassador to Israel … . He said there is absolutely no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only a political solution. How many times do we have to relearn this lesson?” 

More than 700 people registered to attend the third major event, held in the vast Klarman Hall at Harvard Business School and co-sponsored by HBS and the Middle East Initiative.

Panelists from left) Tarek Masoud, Amaney Jamal, David Makovsky, Khalil Shikaki, and Shai Feldman at Klarman Hall.
Panelists (from left) Tarek Masoud, Amaney Jamal, David Makovsky, Khalil Shikaki, and Shai Feldman at Klarman Hall.

On that stage along with Masoud, Feldman, and Shikaki were David Makovsky, an analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and former State Department adviser, and Amaney Jamal, an American with Palestinian family roots who is dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. At times the discussion seemed on the brink of devolving into mutual recriminations and inside-baseball; granular debates traced which side deserves the lion’s share of blame for the failure  to achieve a two-state solution over the past 30 years. Masoud gently cajoled and nudged the energized panelists to shift toward what might come next rather than continuing to litigate historic wounds.  

Asked by a student in the audience what might help move the stalemate, Jamal replied with her own question: How many peace groups were there on the Harvard campus? Was there room for more? She drew applause when she said, “You guys are going to be influencing policy. You guys need to start talking about peace and bringing peace. ... We would love to be able to turn the page and be able to live with peace and dignity, as Israelis, as Palestinians.” 

Like the earlier events, the HBS gathering concluded without incident, and the relief was nearly audible. Masoud thanked the panelists for “vigorous debate about important issues that comes from a place of goodwill.” And he thanked the audience for reminding the world that Harvard “is a place founded on reason and fearless inquiry.” 

Correction: The original erroneous description of Brandeis University has been deleted.

Banner image: Professor Tarek Masoud greets members of the audience following the recent HKS Forum on the war between Israel and Hamas.

Photos by Martha Stewart, Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer, and Julia Martin.

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