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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

An Interview with Ghaith Al-Omari and David Makovsky

During their recent visit to Brandeis’ campus, The Brandeis Hoot spoke with the Washington Institute’s Ghaith Al-Omari and David Makovsky. The pair spoke about their backgrounds, the importance of communication and the potential for a two-state solution in the Palestine-Israeli conflict. 

 

In the interview, Makovsky does note that himself and Al-Omari are not from Palestine or Israel so they do not intend to speak for the people of either state. Though the pair agree that their communication, despite being of different backgrounds— one Arab and one Jewish—is key to the success of their partnership. 

 

Though the pair did acknowledge that their partnership is somewhat of a rarity, given their backgrounds. Al-Omari and Makovsky have spoken at around 70 universities and colleges in some of which Jewish students and Muslim students don’t typically engage with one another, according to the interview. Though the hope for their visits is after their event these students from different backgrounds can engage with each other directly and form new bonds, they told The Hoot. 

 

Al-Omari and Makovsky were on campus this week as part of a Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee (BIPAC) sponsored event. Similar to talks they’ve given at other colleges, they spoke to students about their work in American think tanks.

 

Can you each tell me a little bit about your background?

 

Makovsky: I grew up in the Midwest, [in] St. Louis, Missouri. I was very influenced by Anwar Sadat. … I just thought “this was a transformative figure,” and I felt that I really wanted to be a part of that [kind of work]. I was a journalist after I graduated [from] grad school and I worked for seven years as a diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, … and I was also the diplomatic correspondent at Ha’aretz, which saw itself as the New York Times of Israel. I got with Yitzhak Rabin around the world, and those experiences deepen[ed] my sense of the importance of Israeli-Arab coexistence. 

 

I have been at the think tank at the Washington Institute since the year 2000, I’ve [taught] graduate students on the side as an adjunct [professor] at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies for the last 23 years and I worked in the Office of the Secretary of State [during] the last round of U.S. peace negotiations, which was in 2013 or 2014. 

 

Al-Omari: [I was] born and raised in Jordan and I’m a lawyer by training. David’s moment was Camp David, mine was the Oslo agreement. Seeing the promise in ending a conflict that defined at least my childhood and my upbringing to that point was very energizing. I ended up moving to Ramallah in 1998 and soon after that I joined the Palestinian Negotiating Team. … Since then I was a political director to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Foreign Policy Director to the Palestinian president and I got engaged in all of the negotiations between [19]99 and 2006.

 

Since then, I came to Washington and initially worked for a Palestinian-American organization that no longer exists. I then joined The Washington Institute. I tend to focus on Palestinian politics, partly because it’s my expertise and partly because I think [that] to get peace, you need both societies to have stable political structures. Unless you deal with dysfunction on the Palestinian side and dysfunction on the Israeli side, the leaders will never have the political strength to engage.

 

Where would you say that you find common ground?

 

Makovsky: We agree on most things. … We work for an American think tank, and we see the United States as indispensable. I don’t wanna speak for [Ghaith], but without the U.S., there’s no country that could kind of fill that role to minimize risk given the U.S.’ unique superpower status. Neither of us live [in Israel or Palestine], and we don’t claim to be able to speak for the people there. But, as Americans, we are looking to see how to build sturdier bridges of coexistence at a very difficult time where the Venn diagram does not overlap. … 

 

I think we’re both more in the incrementalist school. [We have] a belief that whenever it’s all or nothing in the Middle East, it’s nothing. And, therefore, what are incrementalist things you could do when it comes to infrastructure, defense, security cooperation, employment [and] possibilities of public health. There are a lot of different areas that don’t touch the third rail of politics. … We would love to see something transformative, but we just don’t see it in the cards at this time. 

 

Al-Omari: Just conceptually speaking, I think the fact that we are both believers in a two-state solution creates common ground. When you have the same objective, even if you’re coming at it from different sets of attachments, you have the same objective. So you have a partnership, and … difference, when it exists, becomes an obstacle to be overcome [instead of] an excuse to go back to your corner. I think that from that basic point, a lot of the policy agreements flow. We’re colleagues and we often start a new issue with disagreement [and] differences. Then you start looking for solutions, and when you look for solutions, ultimately you have something in common. The fact that we personally like one another … helps. 

 

Your question to my mind is both kind of bizarre, but it’s also the reason that we come and we’ve often heard that before. Like, “how can a Jew and Arab have a conversation?” To us, this was something that you even think about when you’re in the policy world, you’re a professional [and] you’re working towards something. Yet what we realize [that] when we are doing these [talks on campuses], a lot of these campuses are actually almost exotic. In a campus environment, so much of what we do, in addition to kind of pushing some of the policy ideas that we push, is to show and model [those ideas]: this kind of conversation is possible. 

 

How do you find that your communication style differs on college campuses as compared to in government work?

 

Al-Omari: When it comes to government, first of all, the amount of knowledge that your audience has is very different. So rather than go through the basics, you go straight to the details. But also, when you deal with government, what you’re trying to do is one of two things: Either provide a solution to a problem that they’ve been grappling with … or shift a policy. … It’s a very different thing, [because] we’re not here to try to impact policy. We don’t go into the weeds of the issues. We are here for two reasons: one is educational, to show the audience that it’s a bit more complicated than a bumper sticker, … and there’s also a modeling part to show that this kind of conversation is possible. None of these are actually issues that government people are interested in.

 

Makovsky: They [government workers] want to know what the mechanism is. [They ask] what is the goal? How do you get from A to B? It could get technical, it gets into land classification and the West Bank and Area C. It’s just a very different objective. As Ghaith said, while here our purposes is. …We don’t vary our message … We’re the same people. 

 

Makovsky, you’re quoted as saying “Regardless of what we said, the fact that we were saying it together seemed to stick out more than anything.” Is there a moment you can point to that exemplifies this message?

 

Makovsky: We were just at Virginia Tech. It’s a campus of 30,000 people and we saw that the Jewish kids … and the Muslim kids … had never really spoken to each other. The way the event was built, it could have lent itself to a very much more combative kind of conversation. There were some very tough questions, which was fine. But what was really heartwarming to us was to see the Jewish kids and the Muslim kids, really almost for two hours after the event ended engaged each other directly. At the end, one invited all the others over for a barbecue. They had not spoken to each other for like four years on campus. … There was an engagement there that wouldn’t have happened unless there was some event that was a catalyst. So that was very gratifying for us.

 

Al-Omari: What really spurred us into this is an off-hand comment by one of the students [at University of California, Santa Barbara], and that was back in 2009 saying, “you know, I’ve never met my, uh, Jewish counterpart before.” That kind of triggered what we talked about at Brown [University (where the quote from above was said)]. That was one of the most emotional events that we’ve done together. It was organized by a Palestinian student and an [Israeli-American] student. Just before the event, … the Israeli-American kid gets killed by a drunk driver. We thought, out of respect, [that we should cancel the event.] Actually, the parents of the [Israeli-American] kid wanted this to happen, the Palestinian kid wanted this to happen. …

 

I think there we’ve done around 70 of these [campus talks] together, and each of us has done dozens alone. Some do stand out because they do exemplify that we’re not the only ones who are just modeling it. There are some communities around this country that are still trying to do interaction and engagement despite all of the negativity coming from the region.


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