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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Dueling experts discuss UN Palestinian statehood vote

Published: September 9, 2011
Section: Front Page

Visiting campus to discuss the U.N. Palestinian vote question taking place later in the month, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine wanted to do more than simply examine the current situation. Their goal, according to Makovksy, “is to get college students … to look forward to solutions that give dignity to both sides” in a conflict that tends to “generate more heat and less light.”

Both Makovsky and al-Omari expressed their concerns about the upcoming move by the Palestinian Authorities—but they were sure to couch the reservations in the language of unity, concern for universal security and the desire to ensure that progress toward understanding and cooperation is not jeopardized. “Our message” on the matter, al-Omari said, “is to go beyond the diplomatic situation” to an immediate future he hopes will be free of anger, irrationality and violence.

Whatever happens in New York, both hope that the moderate voices in each party prevail and the spirit of diplomacy prevails. As Professor Ilan Troen suggested in his introduction, the “mess” we confront may also be “the best path.” Al-Omari hopes that those involved will be able to “put it [the vote] in perspective” and realize this is a single episode in a wider conflict.

Should violence break out, “the stakes of confrontation,” Makovsky said, could unleash uncontrollable forces that will only add fuel to the fires of conflict—making the potential for restarting negotiations bleaker than it already is.

Understanding the path to averting this potentially nightmarish situation requires an understanding of the political and security needs of both the Palestinians and Israelis. For the state of Israel, Makovsky identified three “poison pills” that it considers a threat to its security and interests: an increase in status that convinces Palestinians to abandon talks with Israel as a means of managing the conflict; an assertion of sovereignty that presents new territorial and occupational challenges; and the threat of “lawfare,” the manipulation of U.N. machinery to haul Israeli Defense Forces personnel in front of international courts. Makovsky warned of the risk of empowering Israel’s hawkish elements should the international community appear to further isolate it.

Al-Omari insisted that the Palestinians “need to get something” by means of international acknowledgement. Coming back to their people with a diplomatic victory, the government could assuage doubts of international indifference and empower those who have not given up on achieving their aspirations peaceably. Punishing the Palestinian authorities, in al-Omari’s opinion, only serves to undermine support for those who want cooperation and strengthens those, like Hamas, that believe only in force. For this reason, it is clear to Makovsky that “you don’t have a strong Palestine by tearing down Israel and you don’t have a strong Israel by tearing down Palestine.”

If a resolution can be made at the United Nations that addresses the concerns of both parties, what appears to be a serious threat of violence could instead be a brick laid on the path to progress. Achieving this dream-scenario, however, could be difficult. Makovsky outlined two possible means to bring about a conclusion satisfactory for both sides. The first would be an alternative resolution “more aspirational in nature” recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim to a state while calling for a peaceful diplomatic solution, including Israel, to bring it about. The other possibility is that the quartet of the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations could issue a statement calling for a peaceful solution loosely based on the speeches that President Obama gave on the issue back in May.

As for the role of the United States, al-Omari believes that “the U.S. should be the responsible adult.”

Rather than heightening tensions, the United States is in the “position to impose restraint,” calm tensions on both sides, lead the way to compromise and, at the very least, encourage security cooperation between the two should the situation devolve. Threats made by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to cut funding to the United Nations over the issue are, in al-Omari and Markovsky’s opinions, not helpful. Just as it is not in Israel’s interest to humiliate Palestinian proponents of peaceful resolution, it is not in the United States’ either.

The situation is, therefore, dangerous, but if al-Omari and Makovsky have their way, rational thought and the spirit of cooperation will prevail. Their message to the Brandeis community was one of cautious optimism and persistence. Al-Omari urged the room to get involved and join the ranks of Americans demanding peace and cooperation.

The “state of the conversation in Washington,” he assured us, has come around to this view. It is, in his opinion, up to the American public to assure our politicians they will not suffer for supporting a diplomatic solution. Al-Omari urged the room, when thinking about the Middle East and about conflict in general, to remember: “It’s about people’s lives … we cannot renegotiate history … it’s about the future.”