Palestinian Statehood Discussions in the DC Jewish Community

Last Thursday, September 8th, local congregants, students, and young professionals gathered at the DC-area Tifereth Israel synagogue. Four interesting and experienced panelists had been invited to a discussion, moderated by J Street’s Vice President Aliza Marcus, to describe and explain their views on the Palestinian Statehood initiative at the United Nations, including the roles and potential responses of Israel and the United States. The panelists were from diverse professional backgrounds: Ghaith al-Omari is currently the Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine, a married couple of journalists, Jennifer Griffin and Greg Myre work for Fox News and the New York Times respectively, and Scott Lasensky is a research associate and author at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The panelists described briefly their backgrounds and analyses of the situation, and then opened the floor to questions from the moderator and audience members.

What role can, and should, the United States play?

Ghaith al-Omari believes that US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is necessary for its management and eventual resolution. While the Arab Spring and the economy are legitimate distractions for Obama, al-Omari argued that the US cannot simply disengage, despite the difficulties that George Mitchell and others have recently encountered, because there is no replacement for the US. However, one of al-Omari’s main theses is that a full and final resolution is not possible at this moment. Instead, the parties should focus should be on what’s doable – specifically in terms of cooperation on the issues of security, institutions, and the economy. Although improvement in these areas might be less visible, it would be felt in the areas that matter most – in the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and would help lay the bureaucratic and psychological groundwork for future progress.

Oslo Accords: What will happen to the Oslo Accords if the Palestinian statehood initiative succeeds?

Al-Omari noted that Oslo has already been breached by both sides. In addition, he added that the level of trust between the Israeli and Palestinian publics is currently so low that sinking any lower won’t reverse the trend. Unfortunately, this suggests that the health of Oslo and the trust between the two publics do not represent gains to be lost in the absence of a peace agreement. Al-Omari reminded the audience of the importance of keeping the interests of both sides in mind – underneath their principles and positions, the Israelis desire security and the Palestinians desire prosperity. These immediate and cross-cutting desires are issues on which the two sides can collaborate and achieve mutual gains. Already, there are strong top-level security ties, and al-Omari hopes that such relationships will continue to strengthen and lead to additional relationships between government leaders and bureaucrats.

Spoilers: What about groups who oppose, and will try to sabotage, a two-state solution?

Mr. Lasensky responded that while groups opposing the two-state solution exist, they grow and shrink depending on the political situation, and currently, many groups have concluded that suicide terrorism is not a sustainable strategy. Jennifer Griffin also reminded the audience that the Al-Aqsa brigades have been mostly dismantled, with many former combatants now working regular jobs. Greg Myre added that the issue of domestic opposition to a two-state solution within the US has been exaggerated, and that the “Jewish lobby” and vote is less powerful than the amount of attention dedicated to it seems to reflect. He notes that Walt and Mearsheimer, in their famous book, mistakenly associated “activity [of the Jewish lobby] with outcome.”

What about Hamas? How will Israelis and Palestinians learn to trust one another?

It seems that everyone who is involved in some way with the conflict has his or her own theory of how trust between the parties should be born and sustained. Al-Omari believes that trust comes from true leadership and a strengthening of the relationship and collaboration between respected leaders on both sides. He also opposes the Fatah-Hamas unity deal because, “unity is good, but reality is better” – and in the current reality, Fatah-Hamas unity will only serve beneficial purposes if Hamas renounces violence and accepts the two-state solution and other generally accepted principles. However, he doesn’t believe that Hamas is a purely irrational group – he suggests that incentives can be successful in encouraging them to change their policies.

The event panelists were experienced members of the political and journalistic community, and this event was most valuable in that it gave an opportunity for members of the Jewish community, many of whom had mostly encountered the Israeli-Palestinian issue from a cultural or religious perspective, to explore it academically and politically.