Press Release
Contact Information: Ghaith al-Omari
May 21, 2009 - 12:00am

On May 11th, 2009 ATFP Advocacy Director Ghaith Al-Omari took part in a panel at the Woodrow Wilson Center entitled "Breakthrough or Breakdown: The Obama Administration and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process". Mr. Al-Omari mapped the current Palestinian political scene, focusing on the schism between Hamas and Fatah, the efforts to form a new PA government, and internal Fatah dynamics. He also laid out steps necessary to move the peace process forward. In particular, he focused on the need to maintain Palestinian-Israeli negotiation, immediately halt all Israeli settlement activities, improve the economic and security situation in the West Bank, and ensure the provision of humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip.

Read more about the event by clicking here

The Wilson Center Event Summary Follows

Event Summary

The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a panel discussion with Shai Feldman, Judith and Sidney Swartz Director, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, Ghaith al-Omari, Advocacy Director, American Task Force on Palestine and Former Advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas, and Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center.

Feldman addressed the Israeli political perspective. He stated that it was unlikely that there would be breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process in the “Anwar Sadat” way. However, a breakdown is also unlikely because too much is domestically at stake for Israel. The new initiative in US-Iran relations has created an opening that could reverse the positive trends in the past. Furthermore, Israeli leaders know that the Israeli electorate would punish those responsible for any deterioration in US-Israel relations. Feldman enumerated four important components in any new approach. First, Israel must be committed to engage early. Second, Israel must be willing to engage with the US and its adversaries, including Iran. Third, Israel must realize that the US cannot tackle this problem alone. Fourth, all issues in the region are connected. Feldman noted that the three most important leaders in Israel – Netanyahu, Barak and Leiberman – would utilize different approaches to resolve current problems. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that until the formation of a Palestinian unity government, he is in favor of a ‘bottom-up’ approach that would include creating economic unity and lifting barriers that have prevented the free movement and access of goods and people. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is willing to engage with Gaza and, by default, Hamas. This would include putting an end to rockets, removing blockades and a prisoner exchange. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, on the other hand, has publicly stated that he supports a two-state solution and the 1947 partition plan with the fated ‘triangle’ kept separate from the Israeli state.

Al-Omari addressed the issue of Palestinian national identity. The basic aim in Palestine should be to reconcile the various political contingencies, most prominently the rift between Hamas and the PLO, “into a more unified and functional group.” He warned that diplomatic engagement with Hamas without precondition – though yielding short-term benefits – may adversely legitimize Hamas’ place in Palestinian politics as well as its use of violence and tactical terrorism. This would discredit Palestinian National Authority (PA) compliance with international diplomacy codes of conduct. On the issue of how to renew the credibility of the PA, al-Omari suggested a “top-down” approach. As such, the PA must disassociate from members of the discredited PLO leadership. Regarding the upcoming US-Israel talks, al-Omari listed tendencies to be avoided. One is building a strategy solely around Obama and Netanyahu; the U.S. cannot have an effective role in Arab-Israeli peace talks, especially as a mediator, if an exclusive relationship with Israel continues. Second, he cautioned the Israeli leadership not to overreach their goals; the current conditions call for an achievable foreign policy victory at best as such incremental gains create the “traction” needed for talks to continue. Finally, al-Omari predicated the need for a solid framework built on agreements on permanent status, settlement freezes, a change in discourse (in the U.S. Congress and Jewish mainstream) and an improvement in the quality of life in Gaza. All of these elements, believed al-Omari, would provide an atmosphere that is more amenable to future diplomatic negotiations.

Miller identified several key factors that have impelled the Obama administration to take an active role in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. They include the appointment of Special Envoy George Mitchell; Obama’s genuine conviction in his ability to effect significant change; Obama’s reversal of Bush-era policies (i.e. transformational diplomacy) in favor of a “transactional diplomacy” – making deals, not changing regimes; the sheer urgency of reaching a two-state solution; de-linking the peace talks from discussions on Iran; and the fact that, from Washington’s perspective, Arab-Israeli peace is the least hopeless of all diplomatic endeavors because the conflict is “discreet,” “familiar,” “prone to diplomacy” and “ongoing.” Engagement with Israeli and Arab leadership in the upcoming round of talks, according to Miller, needs to be “tough, smart, and fair.” Miller discussed three feasible approaches that the U.S. can opt for: the “cautious approach” in which the U.S. assumes that Israel will take no serious positions on peacemaking until there is more certainty on the Iranian issue.; the “smart approach” which assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved and that it’s better to reach an Israeli-Syrian agreement; and the “bold approach” which has the US “directly involved in defining its own parameters on Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees and in enlisting the Arab states to reach out to both Israelis and Palestinians.”

-Drafted by Nassima Barrows, Kanishka Bhattacharya and Nader Mehran on behalf of the Middle East Program


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