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Middle East Experts Believe There Is Hope for Lasting Peace

Changes in leadership, a growing realization that Israel is a permanent fixture and can be a partner in improving the lives of Palestinians and playing a key role in the economic future of the Middle East have raised hopes that a lasting peace could be on the horizon.

“There is no other solution other than the two-state solution,” said Ghaith Al-Omari, the Jordanian-born senior fellow at the Washington Institute’s program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship.

Driving the push for a negotiated peace is a shift of gravity in the Arab world from the Levant countries, including Egypt and Jordan—with whom Israel has a negotiated a “cold peace”—to the Gulf states, said Al-Omari and David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations. Among those countries, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have signed onto the Abrahamic Accords opening diplomatic and economic ties with Israel.

Al-Omari and Makovsky made their remarks on February 8 in New Brunswick at a program sponsored by Rutgers Hillel’s Center for Israeli Engagement. The in-person program allowed for additional interaction beforehand at a dinner and during a class at which they spoke. Many students stayed afterward to continue a lively conversation with the speakers.

“This thing is really exciting because it’s a peace between people,” said Makovsky, pointing out the Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements were between governments and based on security issues. “It’s a rocketship like I’ve never seen in my lifetime… It withstood the Gaza crisis.”

Makovsky, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International studies, said the Gulf’s perspective differs from other Arab nations. “These are countries that never fought Israel on the battlefield, “ he said. “There’s no trauma, no baggage. They do not abut Israel, so there’s no fighting over the land.”

Moreover, 2011’s Arab Spring showed the leadership of many countries that they couldn’t rely on “the old playbook” of blaming the Americans and Zionists for their economic woes because their people no longer believed them.

The Gulf now looks at Israel as a potential partner in bringing high-tech industry, tourism, healthcare and other economic diversities to replace oil as a source of income as the world turns to alternative energy sources.. During a pandemic year Israel and the UAE did more than a billion dollars worth of trade and have partnered their space agencies, said Makovsky.

Makovsky, who formerly worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State as a senior envoy of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said that during his recent nine-day visit to the UAE the topic of a post-oil future was consistently brought up, with Israel seen “as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

“This a chance to kind of push the reset button on Muslim-Jewish relations in the Middle East,” he said.

However, the Israelis and Palestinians appear to have irreconcilable differences with the Palestinians saying, “‘We want everything,’ and the Israelis responding, ‘No way’,” said Al-Omari, a former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine who served as an adviser to the negotiating team during the 1999-2001 permanent-status talks in addition to holding other positions with the Palestinian Authority.

“The real issue is with politics,” said Al-Omari. “Some of these issues are really fundamental to the identities of both nations.”

While Jerusalem is key to Jews and Israel, the return of refugees is a central point for Palestinians. Yet any peace agreement would require Palestinians to give up that piece since it’s “a non-starter” for Israel.

To bridge this gap, Al-Omari said leaders with vision, legitimacy and political capital are necessary. However, he believes the Israeli coalition is too diverse and unstable to make the kind of difficult decisions required. Likewise, the current Palestinian leadership is also incapable of such leadership, with in-fighting between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank over who speaks for the Palestinians and with as many as 80% of Palestinians believing their government is corrupt. Additionally, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is in his late 80s with no successor.

Yet Al-Omari and Makovsky believe opportunity exists.

Makovsky said Naftali Bennett told him multiple times before he became Israel’s prime minister that he believes the Palestinians deserve a better life.

Al-Omari noted that Israelis and Palestinians have been cooperating daily for 12 to 13 years on security, lessening the distrust among Israelis that existed 15 years ago when he was negotiating construction projects and investment for the PA.

“They have seen they have partners they can rely upon,” said Al-Omari, adding that some initiatives that would have been “unthinkable 15 years ago have become more than thinkable” with the Israel Defense Forces becoming “the biggest advocate for Palestinian interests because they trust their Palestinian counterparts,” and realizing such cooperation brings mutually desirable stability to the West Bank.

Unfortunately, many of these ideas previously fell away once they worked their way up to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said. However, the new government under Bennett seems more willing to give the military some leeway in going forward with projects, while the Biden administration “has centered its approach” on facilitating these steps of mutual cooperation.

These small steps have a direct concrete effect on the lives of Palestinians, including alleviating housing congestion.

“This conflict is about people’s lives and changing people’s lives itself is an important value,” said Al-Omari, adding such steps can also transform people’s outlook toward one another.

He noted that when asked, most Palestinians say they want peace but believe most Israelis do not. If Israelis are asked the same question, a majority want peace but say the Palestinians do not.

However, Al-Omari believes cooperation on small things can “shift the narrative” by talking not about returning refugees, but about the positive things Israelis are doing to help improve Palestinian lives. Rather than talking about Jerusalem, Israel’s focus can center on the ways Palestinians are moving to ensure security.

“If you follow the news you will see these kinds of cooperation happening on a daily basis,” said Al-Omari. ”They go against the general narrative but they are happening.”

With Jordan and Egypt eager to stabilize the region, he is hopeful a coalition of allies, including from Europe, will invest resources.

“We see a real transformation which may not solve the conflict but are at least interested in investing and stabilizing in the region,” said Al-Omari, but added: ”If you are looking for hope in terms of big, transformative changes you will be waiting for a long time. But if you are looking for small steps there is hope.”

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