From left to right: Debra Satz, Alon Tal, Larry Diamond, Salam Fayyad, and Paul Brest. At a recent Democracy and Disagreement class, Fayyad, a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University, discussed relations between Palestine and Israel. (Image credit: LiPo Ching, School of Humanities and Sciences)

The same week world leaders met in the Saudi capital Riyadh to discuss the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a similarly themed discussion took place at Stanford University, featuring former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Professor Alon Tal.

Their dialogue, held April 30, was part of Democracy and Disagreement, a spring quarter class taught by Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Paul Brest, interim dean and professor emeritus at Stanford Law School, that sees experts who hold opposing viewpoints model civil dialogue.

The session focused on the feasibility of a two-state solution in Israel, which Satz described as one of the most deeply divisive topics explored in the course yet. “Our aim today is not to resolve the issue,” she said in her opening remarks, “but to begin to understand the disputed facts and values that underlie it, to better inform our own understanding, and perhaps give guidance to solutions.”

For nearly two hours, Fayyad and Tal grappled with the challenges and complexities of achieving lasting peace in the region, with Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond moderating the discussion. Despite their differing views on a contentious topic, the pair’s discussion was marked by civility and mutual respect. Tal opened his remarks by commending Fayyad for an op-ed he wrote for Foreign Policy immediately following the Oct. 7 attacks advocating for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

“I thought that was an incredibly courageous thing to do,” said Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel and a former member of the Knesset, or Israeli Parliament. “It was a unique voice in the Palestinian community, [and] I wanted to thank you.”

Reasons for hope

Fayyad expressed doubts about the feasibility of a two-state solution, particularly in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.

He observed that a two-state solution means different things to different people and proposed reframing the debate to focus on what conditions are necessary for the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Once those conditions are identified, one can work backward to “reverse engineer” policy and actions to make them a reality, said Fayyad, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting senior scholar at Princeton University.

Fayyad described the current moment as a “one-state reality,” which Tal responded as being unsustainable. Tal said he sees a two-state solution being existentially important to Israel and pointed to diplomatic shifts across the region that could support such an outcome.

“Today is different than any other time in the history of the region for the following reason: The vast majority of Arabs in the Middle East live in countries with diplomatic relations with Israel,” he argued, citing Jordan’s assistance in disrupting Iran’s missile attack toward Israel last month as an example.

“For me, this suggests that the Middle East has changed, hopefully, for the better,” said Tal, who is also a visiting fellow in the Israel Studies Program at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). “I think we all recognize the Middle East is at a crossroads: It can go in the direction that Iran is pushing through its proxies, a jihadist extremist, violent future, maybe heading to a caliphate … or it can be a prosperous, enlightened beacon to the world as it should be.”

Embracing differences in a democracy

The discussion also touched upon broader democratic principles, with Fayyad emphasizing the importance of inclusivity.

“What is democracy if pluralism is to be suppressed?” Fayyad asked. He emphasized that excluding groups will not produce sustainable outcomes.

This conviction, along with the pervasiveness of Hamas in the region, is why Fayyad believes that to politically stabilize Palestine, Hamas must be included in the recovery effort.

Tal, however, vehemently opposed including Hamas in negotiations, calling it a “beautiful, idealistic” impulse but said “that there are consequences when you start a military conflict.” He pointed out precedents for countries excluding certain perspectives during their post-war reconstruction. For example, in post-WWII Germany, the new government made the decision to exclude Nazis because it “decided there was something evil there.”

“I see no signs that Hamas is able to change its DNA, and they’re going to have to be out of the room initially as we start to move forward,” Tal said.

Fayyad believes peace is only possible when there is a parity between the two societies. He stressed that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and be considered equals in a country of their own.

He also emphasized the importance of honoring each side’s perspectives and accepted truths. “At some point, there is a shared space within which people can operate and reach solutions,” he said.

Making space for nuance

The discussion also included questions, observations, and some dissent from students.

One student asked Fayyad to suggest a name for a unified Israel-Palestine – a question that prompted a sobering reflection from Fayyad about how he doesn’t see the conflict being resolved during his lifetime.

Another student brought up the issue of war crimes including genocide, which led to a lengthy discussion between the speakers about protecting sovereignty and the rule of international law.

Tal said he “categorically rejected” the accusation of genocide, framing Israel’s response as defensive. In contrast, Fayyad shared how he believed “there’s no question” war crimes have been committed, and urged Palestinians to “fully cooperate” with an independent commission of inquiry to investigate.

Tal also emphasized the profound human cost of conflict. “For a family that lost a child, it doesn’t really matter what your explanation is. The goal has to be to find a way so these kinds of wars never happen again.”

After attending the class, Tom Albert, who works in alumni relations at the Graduate School of Business and is Israeli, said she felt more hopeful about how people can talk about the conflict in a way that recognizes the many truths and lived experiences that exist.

“That session modeled for me that we can talk about this respectfully while honoring the devastation each side feels,” Albert said.

Fayyad also spoke at an event hosted by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL)’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at FSI, which was moderated by Diamond and Hesham Sallam, a senior research scholar and associate director for research at CDDRL.

Diamond is the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy, and a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.

Tal is also a visiting professor of business and sustainability at the GSB.