Two Middle East experts, Ghaith al-Omari and David Makovsky, came to the University of Massachusetts Tuesday night to discuss practical solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There were roughly 80 attendees to the UMass Hillel hosted conversation called "Challenges and Opportunities in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Seeking Practical Solutions in an Age of Polarization." The event featured a discussion on the importance of a dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis in finding a solution to this ongoing struggle.
Throughout the discussion, al-Omari represented the Palestinian view and Makovsky represented the Israeli view.
Al-Omari is a senior fellow for the Washington Institute's Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S-Israel Strategic Relationship. He served as the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine and held several positions within the Palestinian Authority.
David Makovsky is a Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations.
Makovsky and al-Omari both gave opening statements expressing interest in a two-state solution, where Israel and Palestine both get a respective homeland. The two speakers also agreed on the same set of issues that need to be addressed to reach this agreement.
"When we say a two-state solution, we know what this means in detail," al-Omari said in his opening statement. "It means there are four or five policy issues that need to be resolved: the future borders between these two states, what to do with Jerusalem, what to do with refugees, what to do with security arrangements and the mutual recognition of the two states."
"We have now narrowed this conflict from a broad, enormous construct to a very clear set of decisions," he added.
Makovsky echoed these sentiments in his opening statements, as well as adding a practical outlook.
"We're not here to point fingers, we are here to be relentlessly focused forward," Makovsky said.
"What can be done now to push this forward?" Makovsky asked, and later answered about how these countries can take small steps toward this goal.
"If you know you're gonna strike out by trying for a homerun, the answer is to go for the solid single," he said. "To do the one thing that would get students, whether they're in Amherst or Tel Aviv, to believe that this is real, that change is possible."
He also noted that the most meaningful step toward change for Palestine would be securing land, and for Israel would be guaranteeing security.
The two speakers then took questions from the audience, one of them regarding their feelings towards the May 4 panel discussion, "Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and Palestinian Rights," organized by the Media Education Foundation. Three anonymous Jewish students filed a lawsuit to block this panel from taking place, claiming the event is anti-Semitic.
Both speakers admitted to not knowing each of the panelists' views specifically, but gave their response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which panelists Roger Waters is an open supporter of.
"We are people who believe in dialogue and the two-state view," said Makovsky. "If you can't say the phrase 'two-state solution,' why should the other side even listen? There needs to be ways to have an exchange of views, it's the essence of a university."
In al-Omari's response, he stated he has problems with BDS on three fronts, the first being that it is not oriented around a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
"I'm a believer that this conflict would be resolved by both sides coming together and saying, 'I know how painful this concession is, but I still want to find a way to make it work,'" he said. "This can only be done through negotiations, through dialogue."
The second was that supporters of BDS "don't want to go for a two-state solution," according to al-Omari.
"I don't believe that one state is good for the Palestinians or Israelis. I think a one state solution is something that denies them both of their right to self-determination."
Thirdly, al-Omari criticized BDS' passive stance on anti-Semitism.
"I'm not going to say that every member is an anti-Semite, or even a majority," he said. "But there are enough who flirt with the idea that I just can't legitimize any movement that still meddles with the idea of anti-Semitism."
At the end of the conversation, the moderator of the conversation, David Mednicoff, a UMass professor of Middle Eastern studies and public policy, added his own note to the discussion.
"On behalf of the University, I hope people have read Chancellor [Kumble] Subbaswamy's statements about free speech in general and I just want to reiterate two things," Mednicoff said. "One is that the University is opposed to boycotts of academic ideas or boycotts in general. And secondly, he says in his statement it is very important for people to think outside of their intellectual comfort zone."
"That's what a university is supposed to do," he added.
Subbaswamy wrote an Op-Ed in 2017 about the importance of "academic freedom."
"It is imperative that the university be a place where the great issues of the day are vigorously debated, whether they be economic, social, philosophical or political," Subbaswamy wrote. "And while a university community must not tolerate hate speech, on a free and open campus, no idea should be banned or forbidden."