Two Friends Call for Coexistence in the Middle East

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A town named Hebron, located in the West Bank. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Jordan Klein)
*Written by Maya Kornberg and Julia Turan *

Last Monday night, David Makovsky, a Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Ghaith al-Omari, the Advocacy Director for the American Task Force on Palestine, who also served in the Palestinian Authority, came together on Stanford campus in an effort to defuse the anger surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to promote coexistence between the two peoples.

Dispirited by the “uncomfortable dynamic” and “tone of divisiveness” on campuses surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, David Makovsky and Ghaith Al-Omari have been touring college campuses in North America giving talks together.

They hold that in order to deal with issues on which there are conflicting opinions, it is necessary to build relations and a trust that is removed from politics as much as possible. Makovsky clearly explained in the discussion that a “discourse of coexistence needs to be emphasized on college campuses.” As Al–Omari put it, “You can be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel and you can be pro-Israel without being anti-Palestinian.”

How well have Stanford students coexisted when relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on campus? Jenna Queenan, president of SCAI (Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel) on campus said, “We want to show that we can be civil because we’re Stanford students, but we aren’t able to devote the time necessary to get to know each other.”

But prior to the event on Monday night, Muslim and Jewish student leaders had a chance to devote time to that discourse. They came together with Makovsky and Al-Omari for a special dinner, meant to encourage collaboration and empathy.

In their talk, both Makovsky and Al-Omari presented thoughtful portrayals of the history of the conflict, the present situation, and what can be done in the future. Israel currently has a peace treaty with Egypt, signed in 1979 by Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat, and the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, between Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein I, but negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been on and off for a long time.

Both speakers deemphasized the importance of history in the possible current resolutions to the conflict. Al Omari said that history should not define the conflict, because any explanation of history is assumed to attempt to undermine the other side’s claims. Rather, Al-Omari explained that it’s important to try to understand the other side’s narrative and maintain a rational and open mindset. Makovsky asserted that, “It’s very hard to solve the past, so we should focus on solving the future.”

What kind of future lies ahead? Makovsky and Al-Omari were both very optimistic in their analysis of the conflict. They explained that most people can now agree on the end result, a two state solution with the rough boundaries of 1967.For them, the current problem lies in achieving this solution.

Al Omari explained that before negotiating, it is important to define clear objectives, and that “symbolic issues, such as who has more attachment to the land, cannot be answered in rational terms.” The speakers showed that there is more that should unite than should divide these peoples, even though events over the past decades suggest the opposite.

Al Omari also expressed the need for American intervention in the conflict as an objective third party.  He explained that Palestinians and Israelis are too wrapped up in their regional politics, making it difficult for them to be strategic in their negotiations. A third party is necessary for the negotiations. While some may argue that the United States is not an “honest broker,” because of its deep and historical connections with Israel in many different realms, Makovsky made clear that as a third party, the United States can deliver. This third party cannot force a solution, but rather can impose behavioral modifications, a code of conduct, to the negotiations.

Makovsky articulated the dangers of extremism when he asserted that, “When moderates don’t come together, extreme voices prevail.” On Monday night, moderates came together from both sides to try to build a constructive and united effort for peace. As the whole world turns to watch the turbulence and drama unfolding in the Middle East, Monday night brought hope of quiet to the Stanford campus. As Al Omari said, “the loudest voices are the divisive voices, but we have to bring out the silent majority.”

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