Two Middle-East policy experts came to campus Monday night to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict, with each recommending a "two-state solution" in which both Israel and Palestine become independent states.
David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute's Project on Arab-Israel relations, and Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow in the Washington Institute's Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship, represented Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, respectively. Makovsky served as senior advisor during the 2013-14 Israel-Palestine peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Al-Omari is a former Palestinian Authority official, who served as a Palestinian negotiator during the permanent status negotiations in 1999-2001.
Brown Students for Israel hosted the event, "Across the Green Line: Seeking Cooperative Solutions to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," to discuss "how cooperation-based solutions can move towards a lasting and just peace," according to the event description on Facebook.
"Instead of shouting at each other across the aisle, across flyers, across the room, both sides and all sides (should) work together to try to come up with cooperative solutions," said Ethan Swagel '23, a member of BSI and a lead organizer of the event. "Extreme positions don't get anywhere and blame games don't get anywhere, but working together can move towards a productive solution."
The event follows nearly a year's worth of activism pushing the University to "divest from companies that profit from Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories." The University's Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices voted to recommend that the University divest from "companies identified as facilitating human rights abuses in Palestine" Dec. 2. It also comes just two weeks after a student-sponsored panel focused on the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a movement that prioritizes the Palestinian right of return to Israel and calls for the end of Israel's occupation of contested territories.
Makovsky and al-Omari began by discussing the progress that has been made in the region since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the first face-to-face agreement between the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These successes include an "international consensus on what the endgame is — a "two-state solution" and a "good sense of what a menu of options is to end the conflict," al-Omari said. The issues that a two-state solution needs to address are refugees, Jerusalem, borders, security and the issue of mutual recognition, he added.
But both speakers believe that reaching a two-state solution within the next few years is not feasible. "The bad news is we are not closer today to reaching a deal than we were when we met ten years ago. We might be further," al-Omari said.
Both speakers attributed this infeasibility to the political leaders of Israel and Palestine, who did not want to make politically unpopular decisions at the risk of compromising their legacy, the speakers said. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, "does not have the political legitimacy (today) to make these kind of concessions," al-Omari said.
"I feel these leaders get more focused on their place in history," Makovsky said. "You don't want to be written in the history books as making too many compromises."
Instead of attempting to negotiate a two-state solution that would address all five issues right now, Makovsky and al-Omari suggested addressing one issue at a time — hitting a "single" instead of a "home run," as Makovsky said. He suggested addressing security in Israel and land in Palestine, as he said that those are their most visceral concerns respectively.
Al-Omari gave an example of expanding the amount of land on which Palestinians are allowed to build in the West Bank. This decision would "show individuals in the West Bank today that they have something to gain from peace process" as well as "create a sense of partnership," al-Omari said.
Both speakers said that taking small steps to build trust between the two sides is essential to building toward a larger compromise.
"The biggest problem today we have is neither side believes the other side is a partner," al-Omari said. "Both sides believe they want peace (and that) the other side doesn't want it. We have to start showing there is space for cooperation to rebuild the idea of partnership."
At the end of their panel, both speakers took stances against the BDS movement, largely due to their belief that it is focused on a "one-state" outcome.
"If you can't agree the goal is two states, then frankly I cannot accept it," Makovsky said.
Ghaith also mentioned his concerns that BDS's "narrative starts to border on anti-semitism" and that the movement alienates Israelis and Palestinians.
The event had about 80 attendees. Nati Sror, an exchange student from Hebrew University in Israel, stopped by in hopes of hearing a "pragmatist solution," he said.
"The conversation is usually very polarized, with signaling if you're pro-Palestine, pro-Israel," he said. "If you really want change, you should listen to the pragmatists."
The event was sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Brown-RISD Hillel, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the Israel Campus Roundtable, the last of which sparked concern for some students.
"Israel Campus Roundtable is a coalition of organizations that includes the Israeli consulate, birthright Israel and Israel On Campus Coalition. All three of those organizations are explicitly pro-Israel," said Tal Frieden '19.5. "The (event) is claiming to be advancing some sort of bilateral negotiations as resolutions to the conflict, yet it's explicitly sponsored by the Israeli government and other organizations that work to advance Israel's interests abroad."
Swagel said this concern was unfounded, adding that BSI had chosen speakers and a moderator before they applied for funding from ICR, and that the speakers only represented their own opinions as policy experts and former peace negotiators.
"It's almost a dog whistle of 'it's funded by an Israel group, everything that's said will be biased, nothing will be factual or real,' (which) is sort of distracting from the main point," Swagel said. "I took away that it was a really productive and interesting discussion of real solutions."