Political analysts David Makovsky and Ghaith al-Omari had a simple message when they spoke to a room of about 172 people about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“If Jews and Arabs can talk to each other in the (Middle) East, why can’t they talk to each other in the Midwest?” Makovsky said during their debate Wednesday night.
The event, organized by the Olive Tree Initiative in coordination with the Campus Events Commission, aimed to foster cooperation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups.
The Olive Tree Initiative is a UCLA student group devoted to combating the hostile discourse between Israeli and Palestinian supporters on campus.
“I think it is useful to have a forum that brings together mainstream groups on (the Israel-Palestine) issue,” said Makovsky, director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.
Makovsky said he was alarmed at the hostile nature of rhetoric around the Israel-Palestine conflict on college campuses.
A solutions-based discourse is the way forward, he said. This sort of dialogue is already happening in the region, but campuses in the United States have remained firmly grounded in debating the past, he said.
Interactions between student groups need to emphasize coexistence and civility, he added.
Ryan Bakhit, a fourth-year philosophy student, said he thought student groups on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate were unnecessarily confrontational, but that the civil manner in which the two speakers interacted made him hopeful about future interactions.
“(This event) creates a respectful and cordial environment to have an intellectual debate,“ Bakhit said.
At one point, the debate elicited laughs from the audience as Makovsky and al-Omari compared world leaders to students, assigning grades based on their performance in resolving the conflict.
Jennie Hersh, a first-year women’s studies student, said although her views did not change as a result of the event, she was happy to see a civil and welcoming debate about the issue.
Makovsky has spoken at 46 campuses since 2007. In 2009, al-Omari, the executive director for the American Task Force in Palestine, joined him so they could provide different perspectives on a divisive issue.
The key to their work, al-Omari said, is mutual respect and civilized discussion – a message that they are trying to spread on the university campuses.
While many students are passionate about the issues at hand, said al-Omari, the energy of student groups should be refocused on positive change.
Wednesday’s debate comes days after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would turn to the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state following failed talks between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Al-Omari, who was an adviser to the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, said Obama’s position was necessary to avoid further conflict.
“What the president did is very courageous,” he said. “We need to avert a crisis, and it takes leadership.”
Kareem Ascha, a third-year mechanical engineering student at UC Berkeley, said an event similar to this could be beneficial to student groups at Berkeley.
Looking forward, al-Omari said their ultimate goal is to give voice to the silent majority of moderate students, many of whom he said are being overshadowed by those at either end of the spectrum.
“We are not going to be able to solve the past,” Makovsky said. “The best we can do is have an impact on the future.”