Skip to main content

The author, a distinguished retired U.S. Ambassador, reports on his very recent experience as a debater (of a foreign affairs question) at one of the oldest university forums in the world.— Ed.

320th Session of Debates of the University Philosophical Society

by William C. Harrop

In late 2004, the University Philosophical Society of Trinity College Dublin invited American Diplomacy to send a representative to participate in a debate on the topic, “Resolved: This house believes that the Palestinians are their own worst enemies.” As a board member of its parent organization, American Diplomacy Publishers, I drew the short straw and was the guest of the Society in Ireland for this event on March 1, 2005.

The University Philosophical Society is the world’s oldest debating club. The “Phil” was founded in 1684, some ninety-two years after Queen Elizabeth I founded Trinity College — “in order to civilize Dublin,” Her Majesty said at the time. The Phil is located on the Trinity College campus in the heart of the city. It is managed by its undergraduate members and remains determinedly independent of the university. In fact, TCD, as the university is called familiarly, is not permitted to underwrite more than one sixth of the Phil’s expenses, the remainder coming from dues and donations.

Historically, members have included Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Guest speakers have included Alexis de Tocqueville, Bertrand Russell, Frederick Engels, and Winston Churchill. As one can see from the sampling of speakers, this is a Protestant university with catholic tastes!

The president is elected by the Society’s members and takes off a year from his/her studies to serve. The current president, Patrick Cosgrave, was recently voted the second most influential person at TCD, the first being the president of the Student Union. Another full time position is the Hon. Secretary, who serves as administrator, organizing the sessions and arranging travel and accommodation for participants. The Phil is a gracious host and takes good care of its guests.

There are debates approximately weekly, interspersed with lectures and interviews. Recent guest participants have included Newt Gingrich, Mary Robinson, Germaine Greer, Clare Short, Salman Rushdie, John McCain, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Bishop Desmond Tutu and the singer Beyonce are scheduled for April; both have done TV clips in South Africa for Population Services International, and will discuss HIV/AIDS.

The other participants in the debate March 1 were Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor of Newsweek, Lennie Brenner of the Ireland/Palestinian Solidarity Association, and Mikie Goldstein of the Israeli Embassy. James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, was forced to cancel due to illness. Four well-prepared student members of the Phil also spoke, as is the custom, and there were interventions from the floor. Following the debate, Messrs. Dickey and Brenner and I had an hour’s interview on Ireland National Radio with the prominent columnist and radio host Vincent Brown.

Without rehearsing the entire debate, I will summarize the position I took:

There are many candidates for the title of the Palestinians’ worst enemy: the Likud Party, fanatic Israeli settlers, hypocritical Arab governments, and the U.S. government which provides missiles and helicopter gun ships to Israel and consistently endorses Israeli policies. But one could argue that indecisive and corrupt Palestinian leadership, and its failure to condition the public for the essential compromises to come, indeed make the Palestinians their own worst enemy.

The Israelis are beyond question their own worst enemy as well. Israeli behavior seems designed to enrage the Palestinians and to fuel their hatred of Israel: promotion of settlement building, political assassinations, razing of Palestinian homes, and discriminatory treatment of Arab Israeli citizens.

But more important than name-calling is an analysis of how the bloodshed can most effectively be halted and a lasting settlement reached between the two peoples.

It has been clear for some time that Palestinian and Israeli leaders are not capable of reaching agreement on a final settlement on their own, regardless of opinion polls showing that both peoples yearn for peace and a two-state solution. Mutual mistrust and hatred is too great. The design of an agreement must be delivered, non-negotiable, to the parties from without.

The Oslo process begun in 1993, with its incremental step-by-step negotiations and postponement of the core issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and security) to the last, has proved dysfunctional. Perhaps cynically, the Roadmap announced in 2003 replicated that unworkable approach. Neither side has faithfully carried out its responsibilities, as was quite predictable. The Roadmap seems almost a deception, an avoidance of leadership by the Bush administration. The only promise the roadmap could possibly hold depended upon forceful engagement by the American president, to date absent.

The process must be reversed, starting with a solution of the core issues rather than phased “confidence-building measures.” The best hope is for the United States, UN, EU and Arab League to spell out the design of a final settlement. The outlines of a fair and just final settlement are already well known, articulated at least four times in quite similar terms:

  1. President Clinton’s “Parameters” presented to the two sides in December 2000;
  2. the inconclusive Taba talks in January 2001;
  3. Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh’s “Statement of Principles” in July 2002; and
  4. the December 2003 Geneva Accord of Yasser Abed Rabbo and Yossie Beilen.

The outside powers will have to closely monitor — if not directly supervise—the negotiation of implementing details by the Israelis and Palestinians. The basic plan would not be open to discussion. All this would require real commitment and real leadership from the U.S. president. This is not easy in the context of American domestic political considerations, given the need to force concessions from Israel as well as the Palestinians. But President Bush has reaffirmed his commitment to an independent Palestine and a two–state solution. He must explain to the Israeli public and to his own American constituencies that Israel must make some hard compromises in order to achieve peace and security. He must apply “tough love.”

The audience was attentive and involved. The evening proved to be more a discussion than a debate. I was honored to represent American Diplomacy and American Diplomacy Publishers.

7 March 2005

Amb. Harrop entered the U. S. Foreign Service in 1954 and retired in 1994. He held ambassadorships to Guinea, Kenya and the Seychelles, Zaire, and Israel. Deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1977-80, he was inspector general of the Foreign Service, 1983-86. Ambassador Harrop is a long-time member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, this journal’s parent organization.


Comments are closed.