Former congresswoman speaks on changing Middle East

From the nuclear technology in Iran to chemical weapons in Syria and conflict between Israel and Palestine, tension and turmoil in the Middle East dominate international headlines.

Last night, Jane Harman, a nine-term former congresswoman from California, spoke about these issues to an audience of about 200 people in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in an event called “Seismic Shifts in the Middle East,” part of an annual series held by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israeli Studies. 

“This is an excellent opportunity for the UMD community to hear an expert take an academic approach to an often-politicized topic,” Samantha Levine, a program coordinator for the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, wrote in an email. “[Harman] brings an important perspective to the table because she has an extensive background in policy.”

In her time in Congress, Harman served on all major security committees, including armed services, intelligence and homeland security. In addition, Harman was the first female director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center. However, Harman, a daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi-era Germany, said she also had a personal connection to issues in the Middle East.

“Every time I go to Israel, I feel at home,” she said.

In the event, which was also sponsored by the arts and humanities college and the Office of International Affairs, Harman did not blame any party involved for the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, a situation she compared to treading water in tsunami-sized waves. Rather, she said she hoped to see peace in the region. Her vision for Israel is one of a recognized “Jewish state with secure boundaries,” and said a “neighborhood buy-in is essential” to the success of any deal.

“A deal is the best way … to lock in protection for Israel and reduce the rising tide of anti-Semitism,” she said.

However, she said she remains hopeful that a deal can be brokered between Israel and Palestine, emphasizing the urgency of the situation.

“The parties have to negotiate the solution,” she said. “The U.S. can help them get to the table, but if they don’t want it more than we want it, it’s not going to work.”

In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Harman addressed various other issues in the region, including the recent controversy over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own citizens.

“Whether we call the possession and use of chemical weapons a red line or not, it is a tragedy, and efforts to identify and deactivate Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons in a limited capacity are critically important,” Harman said.

Harman said she hopes to see a “Geneva two,” in which relevant stakeholders and opposition could structure a transition government in the country. Although Harman said efforts to deactivate Syria’s chemical weapons have been successful, they are “not adequate.”     

Harman also discussed nuclear proliferation in Iran, which she called “a central problem but also an opportunity,” and the instability of the fledgling Egyptian government.

Jonathan Zuckerman, a sophomore government and politics major, said he appreciated Harman’s perspective because of her experience in government.

“It was just really interesting hearing a former congresswoman’s perspective,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of political unrest in the area right now, and it was just very interesting hearing someone who had firsthand experience with it.”

Benjy Cannon, a junior government and politics and philosophy major as well as president of this university’s chapter of J Street U, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace organization” that supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, said he agreed with Harman that the time for the countries to take action is now.

“I thought that it was really great and encouraging to hear someone with such a strong security background talk about the urgent necessity for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach peace,” Cannon said. “Overall, I thought she had a really good message.”

Zuckerman added that the issue is relevant to students because it affects human rights and taxpayer dollars.

“America has a large stake in this, so I think that this affects a lot of people,” he said.

Sophomore government and politics major Amna Farooqi, also a member of J Street U, said she appreciated Harman’s perspective, given the former congresswoman’s closeness to the conflict.

“There were some things that I maybe didn’t 110 percent agree with, but I understood where she was coming from,” Farooqi said. “She was very pragmatic and clear in how she laid out what she believed.”

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