Commonwealth Club panel on Gaza yields few insights

A Commonwealth Club panel last week on the Israel-Gaza crisis offered few new insights into the Mideast conflict, with the speakers sticking to their talking points and at times becoming as mired in tit-for-tat crosstalk as the two sides themselves.

A packed house of about 175 attended the July 24 event in San Francisco.

Bay Area–based journalist Jonathan Curiel moderated the hour-long discussion featuring, on the Israeli side, political analyst and radio host John Rothmann and Stanford communications professor Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post.

Commonwealth Club panel addressing the Israel-Gaza situation photo/sue fishkoff

Holding up the Palestinian side were U.C. Hastings law professor George Bisharat, an expert on Palestinian lawyers working under Israeli occupation, and Dr. Jess Ghannam, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF who specializes in the psychological effects of war on children.

The conversation remained quite restrained, with the panelists correcting each other’s perceived inaccuracies with marked politeness.

Ghannam focused on the trauma suffered by Palestinian children growing up under military law. Noting that he’s been going to the Gaza Strip for 25 years, he said the crisis has hit a new low this year.

“The bleakness is hard to wrap your head around,” he said. “I’ve been seeing it for years, but [on my visit] last December it was particularly troubling. We’re at a situation where Palestinians in Gaza are saying they’d rather die with dignity than live [under occupation]. And it’s a total game changer.”

Zacharia echoed that pessimism, saying the current enmity between the sides represents “a unique moment” she hadn’t witnessed in her 20 years covering the region.

What sparked the current conflict, Curiel asked? The June murder of the three Jewish yeshiva boys in the West Bank, Zacharia said.

Untrue, countered Ghannam. Hostilities broke out because Israel “got apoplectic” when Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government. “The idea of a Palestinian unity government was the tipping point for Israel to go into Gaza,” he said.

So, asked Curiel, given the elusiveness of a cease-fire agreement, could unilateral action end the violence?

Sure, Rothmann said: As soon as Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel, Israel will stop retaliating.

Not true, said Ghannam, noting that there have been long stretches of time with no Hamas rockets, and the occupation continues. “Once Palestinians are free, there will be no rockets,” he said.

“This is the kind of back and forth that goes on,” Rothmann intoned, adding that it’s not useful to focus on who did what to whom, when. “The [fact] is, Israel exists. And the Middle East has to accept that.”

None of the panelists seemed hopeful about the viability of a two-state solution anytime soon.

Bisharat was the most vehement, saying, “With 700,000 settlers, I believe we’re past the point of a two-state solution.”

He called what exists now “a one-state reality [with] people living under two different legal principles.” And that, he said, “is apartheid.” If a nation where all are equal ever does emerge, he said, it will take “30 or 50 years.”

For now, a status quo looks to persist, with little help from America. “The U.S. has checked out until at least 2017,” after the next presidential elections, said Zacharia.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at