David Makovsky is the Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovsky served on Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team during the 2013–2014 Israeli-Palestinian talks. Makovsky is also an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Ghaith Al-Omari is the former Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute. Al-Omari served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team throughout the permanent status negotiations (1999–2001) in Camp David and Taba. He was previously Director of the International Relations Department in the Office of the Palestinian President.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been overshadowed by tumultuous events in the Middle East following the Arab Spring in 2011. However, tectonic shifts brought about by the region’s recent upheavals are in turn impacting Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. In this joint interview with David Makovsky and Ghaith Al-Omari, Fox & Hedgehog explores the impact of these regional changes, and also discusses the effect of recent developments with elections in Palestine and the United States, the $38 billion American aid package to Israel, and the Iran nuclear deal.
Earlier this month, the Palestinian High Court suspended preparations for what could be the first local Palestinian elections in a decade to cover both the West Bank and Gaza. How important is this election and what kind of impact could it have on the peace process?
Ghaith Al-Omari (O): It gives me no pleasure to say that more than a month ago, I wrote a piece that predicted that the elections would be cancelled. Elections could not have happened when you continued to have separation between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas would not allow PA-oriented candidates to run in Gaza, and the PA would not allow Hamas-oriented candidates to run in the West Bank. So that unfortunately is not going to happen. That said though, without the election it is very hard to re-legitimize Palestinian governing structures when you have the president in the eleventh year of a four-year term and when you have parliament in the tenth year of a four-year term. There are no legitimate institutions right now, which makes it very hard to move towards peace. Therefore, domestic Palestinian reform is key. Unfortunately for the time being, where the split between Fatah and Hamas continues, I don’t see elections happening any time soon.
Another important election, of course, is the U.S. presidential election. David Makovsky, you worked on Secretary Kerry’s 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. If Hillary Clinton is elected, what kind of differences might you see in her administration’s approach compared to that of President Obama?
David Makovsky (M): On one hand, it’s hard to gauge with certainty. This is a region that has a lot of issues: the war in Syria, the war with ISIS, all the problems of Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. It’s hard for me to imagine that you will dive into this by doing another Camp David, go for broke, summit. I tend to think she will want to see what is possible to move this conflict along, to maintain the viability of a two-state solution, even if she doesn’t go for broke in trying to do a high stakes summit. I think it’s more caution, but I don’t think she will give up on this issue. She will look for what maintains the viability of two states now, so I do think she is going to engage on this issue but not in a go for broke kind of way.
Ghaith Al-Omari, you worked in the Camp David negotiations that Bill Clinton held in 2000. Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Goldberg from the Atlantic recently speculated that perhaps Bill Clinton could come back to have second chance at the peace process in a Hillary Clinton administration. In the event of a Hillary Clinton presidency, what early moves would you hope to see from her administration?
O: To be honest, I would like her not to rush into a big peace process before things are ready on the ground. I don’t want to see an envoy, I don’t want to see a summit, I don’t want to see any of these things. I want the administration to focus on practical things on the ground that are achievable and that can shift the public mood of both Palestinians and Israelis to get to a point where we could have big diplomacy. Don’t rush into a big diplomacy, but at the same time do not abandon the issue. Find the happy medium at which progress can be made, given what is possible today.
David Makovsky, you mentioned that Syria, ISIS, and other issues have taken the center stage in the Middle East. How did that impact the 2013-2014 negotiations, and how might it impact the peace process now?
M: The ISIS issue really shot to prominence more in the summer of 2013 with the beheadings of journalists and things like that. It was not really a factor in our talks at all. The Secretary of State was very determined, he wanted support from the president to move it forward. I would argue that on one hand the regional dynamic did not crowd out this issue at all, but I do think it had an impact certainly on the way that Israel looked at security issues. Ever since the 2011 Arab Spring and backlash, with a sense that the tectonic plates in the Middle East were shifting, that this was a volcanic area, certainly the idea for Israel of removing its soldiers was a leap into the unknown at a time when the region is unstable. Taken as a whole, the ISIS issue had an impact: I don’t think crowded it out the Palestinian issue, which rose and fell in that regards on its own, but certainly the uncertainty over the direction of the region, the greater instability, greater insecurity, was a factor in Israel saying don’t pull out Israeli security amid heightened turbulence.
The Iran nuclear deal brought major changes to the regional landscape. Some argue that it is stalling rebuilding efforts in Gaza, while others say it is bringing the Arabs and Israelis closer together. On the whole, what is the impact of the Iran nuclear deal on the peace process?
O: First of all, the deal itself undeniably has pushed back the Iranian’s ability to have a nuclear weapon by a significant amount. Yet a number of things in the deal made the regional situation more complicated. One, the U.S. traditional allies, the Gulf Arab states and Israel, felt that this was a deal that was done behind their backs, and felt almost betrayed. But also after the deal, Iran has started playing a very aggressive role in the region. They are involved in the Syrian war, Iraq for all intents and purposes, Yemen, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia. It created a sense of urgency to deal with the Iranian issue and a sense of almost loss of trust in the U.S. administration. I think—and here Makovsky and I disagree—I think that did complicate the work of Secretary Kerry and his team because the region was not as willing to invest and come on board as they were after the liberation of Kuwait or after the Iraq War.
The Iran nuclear deal, some argue, pressured President Obama into signing last Wednesday’s $38 billion aid package to Israel, which is the biggest military assistance package given in U.S. history. How would one justify the payment of such a large sum?
M: The overall deal is really not much more than what already exists. The number is taking the current level, and the amount of support that goes to missile defense programs. Until now, it was just U.S. aid, and the missile defense was outside the package. Now, it’s one plus one equals two, so when you weave it together the sums are really not a major increase.
However, I would argue it is still by comparison with other countries huge. It’s a signal of the United States to the region, to Israel’s enemies, of deterrence. There’s no patron of Hezbollah that’s going to commit $30 billion in advance over ten years. It’s a sign: Don’t misread the friction between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran deal, over settlements. At the core, the U.S. remains committed to Israel’s long-term security. It is a long-term signal to try to put the Iran deal and the settlements differences into some sort of proportion. This president is very proud of the fact that there’s an iron wall between policy differences and commitment to Israel’s long-term security. I’ve always said it, people didn’t believe me—here, he’s doing it.
Overall it maybe is a $200 million boost, Congress maybe left on its own devices would do more, but I think it’s an important long-term signal. For Israel, it was very important that it be done during the watch of Barack Obama because of concerns that bipartisanship on Israel was fraying. I think Obama wanted to get this done now as part of his legacy and he thought Hillary Clinton would like this off her table. So both sides wanted this done now, each for their own reasons.
This month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that a “one-state reality” is threatening to replace a “two-state solution.” Are you worried about this and what advice would you give to both sides to avoid such an outcome?
O: I’m definitely worried about the collapse of a two-state paradigm. Not because of a factual change on the ground—I think if you look at maps, if you look concretely, a two-state solution is still possible. What is disappearing is the public belief in a two-state solution. There is a need in my opinion to reignite the public’s faith that a two-state solution is possible, and in this sense actions speak louder than words. We need to see action from the Palestinians and the Israelis, even if it is small, to show that they are committed to a two-state solution.
I would add, though, that if a two-state solution collapses, we would not end up with one state. We’re going to end up with ongoing conflict. At the end of the day, Israel has one reason to exist: to be the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinian national movement has one reason to exist: to create a state for the Palestinians. The two national identities, in my view, cannot co-exist in one state, because each wants a state of its own. If you force them into one state, you are creating perpetual conflict. I fear for the collapse of a two-state solution because of a lack of public belief in it, yet I believe if it collapses it would not lead us to an idyllic one-state scenario. It would lead us to perpetual conflict.
M: A thousand percent right.
David Makovsky, what actions do you hope to see from both sides to promote a two-state solution?
M: Using a baseball analogy, we need singles and doubles. You cannot solve all the five mega-issues (borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, mutual recognition), but you can show the publics that are disbelieving on both sides that you are at least moving toward each other. That means, on the Israeli side, within 92 percent of the West Bank (beyond the barrier), you announce you’re not going to settle anymore, you’re not going to make claims on it anymore, and you synchronize your settlement policy and your two-state policy. You’re not going to build in areas that you don’t believe will be Israeli. On the Palestinian side, also demonstrate that you’re a partner, that you want grassroots peace groups to meet, that you don’t want to give money to families of suicide bombers. The goal is co-existence; you therefore don’t want incitement. So there are ways here that you can demonstrate a direction. I think if both sides would demonstrate direction, a lot of people on both sides of the public divide would believe that there’s hope. You might not be able to solve the problem, but maintain the viability of a solution because, as Ghaith said correctly, the alternative to this is perpetual conflict and bloodshed.