Ross, al-Omari speak on the Israel-Palestine conflict

According to Dennis Ross, diplomat for three presidential administrations and expert on Israel-Palestine issues, peace between the two nations is further out of reach today than at any point in his 30-year efforts on the issue.

Ross and Ghaith al-Omari are both fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank dedicated to paving a path to peace in the Middle East. The two men met in April 2000, two months prior to the Camp David Summit. They were on opposite sides of the negotiation, and both said it was the last time the profound sense an agreement was possible.

The two reunited as morning lecture speakers Thursday in the Amphitheater to address the complicated relationship between Israel and Palestine.

What has changed in the last 15 years is the two countries have further distanced themselves, they said. There is a fundamental lack of trust, or what Ross and al-Omari termed “disbelief,” on the part of Israelis and Palestinians that a two-state solution could work or even that an accord could conceivably be reached.

“From the Palestinian standpoint, it’s a concession to negotiate with the Israelis,” Ross said. “On the Israeli side, there is a perception that Palestine is not interested in a two-state solution. And the Palestinians think when the Israelis say they want it, they mean they want an Israeli state and a binational state.”

The shifting alliances and erratic conditions of the Middle East have made “confusion” par for the course of the region, al-Omari said. Between Yemen, Jordan, Egypt — in addition to Iran and Iraq — there is no solid foreign policy aims that are being worked toward.

Palestinians are losing confidence not only in their government, which is corrupt, Ross said, but also in the idea of compromise. As undeniably the weakest, most victimized party in the situation, the fact that Palestinians consider their government illegitimate negates any previous progress, he said.

Both men agreed that neither side has much credibility at this point in time. Polls conducted three years ago showed mirroring opinions on both sides of the conflict. Today, those numbers have dropped precipitously.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government is at its most right-wing moment in history, and the debate over the Iran deal has sucked up much political oxygen.

Intimately aware of the conditions of Palestine as a resident there, al-Omari concurred they were victims. However, he said, “Life is unfair. The question is what are we going to do about it?”

There is an American sentiment that to try and fail is better than to not try at all, he said. But to “go big” and fail would only dig deeper the growing gap between the two nations and their belief in the peace process.

“Failure adds to the sense of disbelief,” he said. “Now you think, when you want to restart negotiations yet again, why? We already failed so why try again? What can be done or will be done has to be rooted in reality.”

The effort must come from both sides, Ross and al-Omari said. Israel could take actions that reinforce their intention of a two-state solution. Palestine’s government could rally its people by enforcing legitimate security measures.

Counterintuitively, Ross said, the Israeli Defense Forces are currently the most prominent advocate for Palestine taking charge of its security.

Taking these steps independently saves the two sides from the kind of protracted negotiations that they have lost faith in, the two said. With a reality and self-interest driven approach, they’d hope to avoid the pitfalls of that process and make the Israeli and Palestinian public at large feel they matter.

Neither side wants to be a “friar,” an Israeli euphemism for “sucker,” Ross said. Both fear making concessions for no return. That is why both men feel the current efforts must be geared toward addressing the disbelief and to demonstrating what a two-state solution would look like.

“It requires building to the west of the barrier, for example. The barrier exists on about 8 percent of the West Bank so immediately you wouldn’t be building on the other 92 percent of it,” Ross said. “What you would say at the same time is, ‘Look, we know this isn’t the final border. Only a final border can be resolved through negotiation. But until we have negotiations to determine it, we won’t build to the east of the barrier.’ ”

He said it would be easier to drum up popular support if Palestine discontinued their anti-Israel media campaigns, for example, by putting Israel on their maps and stopping the airing of inflammatory propaganda.

It is crucial to avoid another American tendency: to reduce choices to a binary, al-Omari said. That is the idea that the decision is between fighting the Islamic State group and doing nothing or resolving the Israel-Palestine or doing nothing. What that does is neutralize other options, efforts and produce power vacuums waiting to be filled by extremists and radicals. He added that a one-state solution is a “fairytale.”

“My own investment in the two-state solution is that it can be seen as a win-win,” he said. “The Israelis get what they want, the Palestinians get what they want. Nothing is perfect, but we can both say we’ve achieved our ultimate objective. Remove that, you remove the objective.”

A belief in a one-state solution was essentially the denial of Palestine’s right to be a sovereign nation-state, Ross said.

“The result of a one-state solution would be the subjugation of one by the other,” he said. “We’re dealing with two nationalist movements competing in the same space. Because of that, the only realistic solution is two states for two peoples.

During their negotiations 15 years prior, the Palestinians were “children,” full of boundless possibility and blissfully ignorant of other perspectives, al-Omari said. As a result, he said they thought they could achieve everything they wanted and more, and this overreach was a critical mistake on their part.

They both reiterated that these steps need to be taken regardless of confusion elsewhere in the Middle East. Waiting for the ideal opportunity would, again, delay efforts and guarantee a continuation or worsening of the current circumstances. The seeds for peace are there but the will to succeed needs to be planted first.

“You’re looking at two people who start with the premise that you never give up on this,” Ross said, referring to himself and al-Omari. “If you give up on this, you’re giving in to those who want you to give up and you’re ensuring that hopelessness becomes the dominant reality. And you cannot make peace when there is hopelessness.”