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Turning conflict into coexistence

Makovsky and al-Omari examined the possibility of a Palestinian state

By Tess Raser
On September 13, 2011

Correction appended.

Noam Chomsky, Tzipi Livni, Heddy Epstein, Avi Dector and Michael Oren have all spoken at Brandeis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and inspired protests and strong responses from the student body. However, the semester's first speakers on the conflict brought a message of coexistence that invited students to approach the discourse with civility.

The event, "UN Recognition of Palestinian Statehood: A New Dawn or Another Debacle," was led by David Makovsky and Ghaith al-Omari and was cos-ponsored by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies last Wednesday. Prof. Ilan Troen (NEJS) and Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies Prof. Shai Feldman (POL) brought the speakers to campus.

Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and the director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. The institute's mission is "to advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East," according to its website. Makovsky, an adjunct lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, is a published author on the topic of the Middle East and is also an experienced journalist, according to the Schusterman Center's website.

His partner, al-Omari, is the executive director at the American Task Force in Palestine, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to advocating that it is in the American national interest to promote an end to the conflict in the Middle East through a negotiated agreement that provides for two states —Israel and Palestine—to live side by side in peace and security," according to its website. Al-Omari also has been director of the International Relations Department in the Office of the Palestinian President and an advisor to former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Makovsky and al-Omari have been traveling to college campuses across the country to speak about the Palestinian government's decision to go to the United Nations this month to request statehood, which, if granted, will result in Israel illegally occupying land.

Troen, director of the Schusterman Center, introduced the event held in Hassenfeld Conference Center by saying, "We are here to [question] why [the resolution] has gathered such support." He made a continued effort to remind students that the event was not an occasion for "casting a ballot but [for] learning."

Makovksy and al-Omari discussed the importance of having both Palestinian and Israeli states.

"You don't have a strong Palestine by tearing down Israel, and you don't have a strong Israel by tearing down Palestine," Makovksy said, emphasizing the United States' role in this process.

Al-Omari presented the question of whether or not the U.S. should be responsible for any possible reactions that could happen the day after the vote and acknowledged that, after the statehood vote, the U.S. could potentially react to public anger, as there is a strong American national interest in the results.

"I think that we [want to] go through the array of options for Palestinians at the United Nations, but … we are more concerned with how the issue is handled the day after. It could turn into a very violent, contentious situation," Makovsky said on the U.S.'s role and on the role of his colleagues and himself. However, al-Omari stated in an interview with the Justice that they are relatively confident in the U.S.'s foreign policy.

"We will find a compromise … to ensure [Israeli security as well as Palestinian]." The problem, according to al-Omari, will come if policy makers and politicians respond emotionally to the conflict. Both speakers found this to be counterproductive in the discourse surrounding the conflict in the Middle East and noted that this, unfortunately, was seen most on college campuses.

"[Students] should be ahead of the curve. We've visited over 25 campuses, and sadly they tend to be much more behind the curve and not looking for solutions but looking to point fingers," Makovsky said in an interview with the Justice. Makovsky's and al-Omari's ultimate message to campuses is the importance of productive, civil discourse.

"[We're] trying to focus on what counts, which is coexistence," Makovsky said. The speakers then noted that at practically every university they have gone to, students were separated on the issue and oftentimes resorted to using polemics and arguments for their respective sides based on emotions and a desire to change history.

"It's not a question of history. We cannot really negotiate history. The past is the past, and we each have our own narratives," al-Omari said. Al-Omari affirmed the importance of narratives in the conflict with his claim that the conflict is about lives instead of primarily about land, but he also revealed the negative effects of reliance on personal narratives in the contentious conversation.

"We feel that there are many politicians out there who want to do the right things but are afraid … that they will get [negative responses] because emotions are so high," he said.

Encountering students passionate about the topic, al-Omari and Makovsky find that university students need to look for solutions that give Palestinians the justice they need and Israelis the security they need. "We believe that there are pragmatic solutions," said Makovsky.

Students from groups such as the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace were all represented at the event with open ears and minds. Hopefully, the event marks the beginning of a year of open dialogue and civil discourse surrounding the conflict. Ashraf Hussein '12, who found the event "hopeful and promising," shares Makovsky and al-Omari's general view of the conflict.

"At the end of the day, actions have to be taken. [A] Palestinian independent state has to be established next to the Jewish state, and the two nations need to coexist."

"I hope that this [event] foreshadows the rest of the year," Sarah Geller '13 of BIPAC said, who sees herself as having moderate views and would like to see this event set the groundwork for progressive, civil discussions.

Makovsky and al-Omari hope that students walked away from the event realizing that the discourse is not as contentious as college students want it to be or try to make it, instead they hope that students realize, "Wow, coexistence. That's doable," Makovsky said.

"This is not pie in the sky, and that's our goal: … that college students be beyond the curve," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted the fact that Prof. Shai Feldman (POL) is director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, as well as the fact that the center co-sponsored the event "UN Recognition of Palestinian Statehood: A New Dawn or Another Debacle."

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