The difficult and dangerous condition of the situation in the Middle East was main point made by Dr. Keith Weissman, senior middle east analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), during his hour-long talk with a group of Columbia students last night.
Columbia's pro-Israel student organization, LionPAC, brought Weisman to "present an unbiased account" of current events in the Middle East, said LionPAC Co-President Mira Kogen, GS/JTS '04. She added that LionPAC felt the need to "present a factual representation of what is going on. Weissman is an analyst, not an academic. His job is to analyze fact and not to have a bias."
AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States.
The event came on the heels of last week's address by two critics of Israel's policy towards Palestinians. Turath, Columbia's North African and Middle Eastern student organization, organized that forum. The views of most of those in attendance last night fell on the pro-Israeli side of the issue.
"I thought that the speaker tried to be objective," said Turath Board Member Wasim Salfiti, CC '03. "But I asked him a question afterwards, 'Why does he personally think the violence broke out?' He could not give me an answer at all."
"He assumes violence will break out among Palestinians for no good reason," added Salfiti. "I find that hard to believe."
Weissman believes that the situation inside Israel worsens daily and that Israel has exercised restraint in the volatile situations on the borders. "People don't realize the scope of what's going on. There are 30-40 live-fire incidents every day. Israel is trying to find ways to control the violence without going after the civilian population." He said that while the Palestinians complain of occupation, there are only about 400 Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
Most of the initial Palestinian deaths, he said, were due to isolated Israeli units being surrounded by mobs and being forced to shoot back in self-defense.
Weissman said that these deaths, which included Palestinian children, brought the Palestinians international support. He said that as Israel continued to search for ways to exact a cost without killing indiscriminately, "Palestinian support dried up."
Weissman chastised the Palestinians for walking away from the bargaining table during last year's negotiations and proposed that the only solution is for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to announce to his people to stop the violence. While he does not think Arafat has complete control, "he can control some things. Last week he told them to stop the mortars and they stopped for a day." But he said Arafat is still unwilling because it would "create too many fissures in Palestinian society." Weissman said the Palestinian leaders he spoke with are upset that United States President George W. Bush has stated his unwillingness to meet with Arafat until he makes such an announcement.
Even with an announcement by Arafat, Weissman stressed, "the Palestinians set themselves back years. They will never get another offer like the previous Israeli government." He said that the Palestinians are near "economic ruin and near starvation" and that this is a situation that "no one wanted."
Following the address, Weissman took questions from the students on issues ranging from the ultimate resolution of Jerusalem to the status of Israeli Arabs. To the latter, he responded that Israeli Arabs' status is legally exactly the same as that of Israeli Jews.
"I thought the questions asked were really good," said Salfiti. "I didn't expect that such a wide spectrum of opinions would be present at the event."
Most students agreed that Weissman presented the facts objectively.
Sogol Somekh, CC '04, commented, "He presented the facts to show what was really going on. He didn't bring his own opinion to try to sway us. A lot of recent Middle East speakers were propagandistic. He gave us facts so we could be better informed."
Abigail Druck, CC '04, said, "We have to recognize that [Weissman] is not Sharon. He's not the final authority. But I found him relatively unbiased, and very historical and informative."