Hillel JUC brings experts to Pitt to discuss Palestinian-Israeli conflict
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Hillel JUC brings experts to Pitt to discuss Palestinian-Israeli conflict

College students enjoy dinner and discussion with Ambassador Dennis Ross and former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari

Speakers Dennis Ross and Ghaith al-Omari, third and fourth from left, join students and staff at Hillel JUC. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Speakers Dennis Ross and Ghaith al-Omari, third and fourth from left, join students and staff at Hillel JUC. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Ambassador Dennis Ross and former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari joined students at Hillel JUC for dinner and a discussion about the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Feb. 8 conversation featured insights from the experts on strategic imperatives, observations from regional visits and suggestions for future peace.

Both Ross and al-Omari are affiliated with The Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank focused on American foreign policy in the Near East.

Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Institute and served as special assistant to President Barack Obama, National Security Council senior director for the Central Region and as a special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Al-Omari is a senior fellow at the Institute, former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, and served as adviser to the negotiating team during the 1999–2001 permanent-status talks in addition to other positions within the Palestinian Authority.

Ross said that to comprehensively understand Israel, it’s important to address the country’s new government and its proposed judicial reforms.

“If you think about Israel, to say it is a vibrant democracy is an understatement,” Ross said.

Israelis hold divergent opinions, but that is a “phenomenon in all democracies internationally right now…What is happening in Israel is symptomatic of polarization, but also of the vibrancy of democracy.”

The ambassador pointed to Israeli voting habits — the most recent election had 71% voter turnout — as well as the hundreds of thousands of protesters gathering across Israel each Saturday night, many of whom are angered by the proposed judicial reforms.

One proposed provision involves the relationship between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

If passed, the Knesset could invalidate a Supreme Court ruling with a simple 61-vote majority. The problem, Ross explained, is that when a simple majority expresses its will, there’s the possibility of tyrannical rule by removing a separation of power stopgap.

In recent weeks, several foreign leaders have signaled to Netanyahu that undoing long-held democratic standards will damage relations abroad.

As the Israeli prime minister presses ahead with changing the character of Israeli democracy, he must weigh competing threats and desires, Ross said: Netanyahu needs the U.S. to be aligned with Israel on the issue of Iran; at the same time, Netanyahu wants to develop relations with Saudi Arabia.

“A breakthrough in Saudi Arabia would transform the Middle East more than anything, much more than the Abraham Accords,” Ross said.

Creating a formal relationship with Saudi Arabia would cement Netanyahu’s legacy, but it won’t be possible with continued flare-ups, he said.

“If you change the status quo on the Temple Mount, this is an issue that creates an electric shock within the region,” Ross said. “If you suddenly legalize all the outposts, and it basically looks like you’re preparing for annexation, you’re going to produce a reaction.”

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco joined the Abraham Accords “because it serves their interests,” but now that the relationship has been established these countries can lean on Israel and influence its behavior toward the Palestinians, he continued.

Pitt student Eitan Weinkle, standing right, speaks during the Feb. 8 program. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Israeli-Palestinian relations haven't been this unstable since the second intifada, al-Omari said, pointing to increased settler violence, the new Israeli government and the “loss of hope and faith.”

“But there are also factors coming from the Palestinian side that are contributing to this lack of stability,” he said, “and one of these centers on the Palestinian Authority.”

“First of all there is no strategy,” he explained. “Peace requires leaders who have the ability to tell the Israeli side, and certainly I don't see it on the Palestinian side.”

The Palestinian Authority was created to serve “in the Palestinian psyche at least for only one reason: to be a transitional government toward the creation of a Palestinian state,” al-Omari said. And because a permanent status agreement has not been reached, many Palestinians are experiencing “an absence of hope.”

“Today, if you're a Palestinian, you look around and you have nothing to believe in,” he continued. “You don't believe in the Israelis — in the same way that the Israelis believe that the Palestinians are not partners, the Palestinians have their own narrative to believe that the Israelis are not partners. You don’t believe in your own government. You don't believe in any of your political institutions. So what do you end up with? You end up with chaos, and this is what we are seeing today.

“The essence of this conflict,” al-Omari said, “is that you have two nations, two peoples, with a very just, very justifiable, claim to the same piece of land.”

While the depth of the Jewish connection is well known, “you’d be mistaken if you think that the Palestinians do not hold a similarly deep connection to this land,” he told the students.

The former Palestinian negotiator dismissed the idea of a single-state solution by pointing to each nation’s expressions of identity: What would the flag look like? What would the national anthem be? How about national holidays? “There's a national identity that needs to be expressed and the only way you can do it is with a two-state solution. So while a two-state solution is not possible today, I think one of the first priorities we have today is how do you make sure that the possibility of a two-state solution is not closed forever. And this is where we have to start looking at the map. Not all settlements are born the same. Some settlements — even though I have issues with settlements in general, — are consistent with a two-state solution.”

Apart from preserving a territorial component, other challenges remain. One, “people have given up,” he said. “I can’t blame them. I can't blame Biden for saying ‘I don't want to touch this.’ There have been so many failures and who wants to be associated with failure?”

The second difficulty, al-Omari said, is convincing Palestinian leadership to accept the realities of partnership. “You can’t start big but you have to start small.”

For many, he said, Israeli-Palestinian relations are theoretical, but for those in the region, and for “any of us who feel a sense of attachment to Palestine and Israel, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we be a part of improving their lives?’ Because at the end of the day, if we're not pushing for it, I think no one else in our country, and in the world, are going to be pushing for it.”

Justin Cohen, business manager of the Student Coalition for Israel at Pitt, said Ross and al-Omari’s comments are part of a larger effort to enhance student understanding on campus.

Along with fellow student Asher Goodwin, Cohen is organizing a seven-session course on the history of modern Zionism, Israeli politics and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Titled, “Israel 360,” the sessions are open to students, regardless of background, from any local campus.

“The Palestinian-Israel issue is often looked at as a very kind of bumper sticker, morality play, good guys, bad guys,” al-Omari told the Chronicle after the event. “We want to convey that we're not asking anyone to change their affiliations, but we want people to understand that it is complicated, there are complicated policy issues, there are complicated and legitimate narratives on both sides.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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