Allison Hodgkins, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Maine, a native Mainer who spent 20 years living and working in the Middle East and organized Wednesday forum. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When the World Affairs Council of Maine began planning its Fall Foreign Policy Forum last May, organizers weren’t sure how many people would show up for a panel discussion on the legacy of U.S. leadership in seeking peace in the Middle East.

The event would bring together three retired U.S. ambassadors who are top experts in Middle East diplomacy, including a Maine resident who worked directly with the Palestinian Authority in the early 2000s. But even that didn’t guarantee a strong turnout.

Now, in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war, the council has moved Wednesday’s forum to the 520-seat Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland to accommodate a larger audience.

“To be honest, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t something people had been paying much attention to,” said Allison Hodgkins, the council’s executive director. “We had no idea that the tragedy of Oct. 7 would push the issue onto everyone’s radar screen.”

The forum also was rescheduled from Oct. 26 following the mass shootings in Lewiston on Oct. 25. The forum is free and open to the public, with a welcome reception at 5:30 p.m. and opening remarks at 6:30 p.m.

The council’s goal in holding the forum is to generate local interest in global affairs and help Mainers realize how their lives are impacted by international events, regardless of what is covered by U.S. news agencies.


“The U.S. has a leadership position in the world and it’s important for citizens to understand that this conflict affects people in Maine,” said Hodgkins, who lived and worked in the Middle East for over 20 years. She is a nonresident fellow with the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies and a board member of the New England Arab-American Organization.

More than 1,200 Israelis and 15,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, sparking protests around the world, spikes in antisemitic and anti-Arab incidents across the U.S., and major political challenges for the Biden administration.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer, left, toasts with Israel President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem on July 24, 2001. Rikard Larma/Associated Press, file

“Our hope is that people come away from the forum with reason to hope that people in the Holy Land can live in peace,” Hodgkins said. “We’re going to have a calm, informed discussion of the issues. We’re going to get away from slogans and sound bites to understand really complex problems.”

The panel will include Daniel C. Kurtzer, who was ambassador to Egypt from 1997-2001 and to Israel from 2001-2005, capping a 29-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He is now a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles attends a ceremony on Jan. 27, 2014. Aimen Zine/Associated Press, file

Also on the panel will be Jacob “Jake” Walles, who worked in the Foreign Service for 35 years, including as consul general and chief of mission in Jerusalem from 2005-2009 and as ambassador to Tunisia from 2012-2015. He is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Tunisia and counterterrorism.

Moderating the panel will be David D. Pearce, a Maine native and Yarmouth resident who lived and worked in the Middle East on and off for several decades. He graduated from Cheverus High School in 1968, studied the classics at Bowdoin College and earned a master’s in journalism at Ohio State University.


Pearce covered the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, then joined the State Department in 1982, ultimately serving as ambassador to Algeria from 2008-2011 and to Greece from 2013-2016. His postings with the Foreign Service included Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait, Dubai, Syria, Afghanistan and Jerusalem, where he was consul general, chief of mission and U.S. representative to the Palestinian Authority from 2003-2005.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Greece David Pearce left, joins then-Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour in Athens on Dec. 4, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP

The focus of Wednesday’s discussion will depend heavily on the latest news out of Israel, Pearce said.

“A lot will depend on what’s going on that day,” Pearce said. “We’ll be talking about how we got here and what happens when the dust settles. Is this the moment that finally might bring peace to the region? That is a question many people have.”

Last week, Hamas released 110 hostages being held in the Gaza Strip before fighting resumed Friday; Israel released 150 Palestinian prisoners while taking nearly that many more into custody; and news broke that Israeli intelligence officials knew over a year ago that Hamas was planning an attack, according to news reports.

The forum is co-hosted by the Muskie School of Public Service at USM, with financial support from the William S. Jelin Foundation. Jelin was a prominent Portland businessman who was Jewish and an advocate for peace in the Middle East, said Harold Pachios, a Portland attorney who represented Jelin and sits on the council’s advisory board.

Pachios said the council was fortunate to have lined up expert panelists who have been busy since the war broke out.


“These guys are on television all the time now, speaking as experts on the Middle East,” Pachios said. “This is an opportunity to bring some critical facts and insight to an issue that’s not very simple.”

Walles, in a phone call from Washington, D.C., admitted he has been tapped frequently in recent weeks to appear on TV news programs.

“It started on the 7th of October, and it hasn’t stopped,” he said.

Walles said it’s too soon to tell whether this crisis might lead to a lasting peace in the region. It’s a rapidly shifting conflict, he said – one that has already forced him to rewrite his opening remarks for Wednesday’s forum.

“I think a lot more bad stuff is going to happen,” he said.

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