Experts Bring Reason, Nuance To Israel-Palestine Discussion At MN Hillel

With Passover on the horizon, David Makovsky took a slight detour when it came to the annually repeated line from the seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations, asked a packed chapel at Minnesota Hillel: “How is conflict different from all other conflicts?”

Like many things related to Israel and Middle East post-October 7, there were no easy answers given. Makovsky was joined by his Washington Insitute colleague Ghaith al-Omari, the former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. He also served as an advisor to the negotiating team during the 1999–2001 permanent-status talks in addition to holding various other positions within the Palestinian Authority.

The event was sponsored by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation Israel Center, Minnesota Hillel, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

“What’s different is, I have never seen the region in such a situation of parallel realities,” said al-Omari. He said that just over a month ago, he traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, “And it’s like, two different universes. 

“When I’m in the Arab countries. I turn on the TV and all I see is starving babies in Gaza…I see death. I see destruction. It’s beyond heartbreaking. It’s infuriating,” he said. “I go to Israel and turn on the news, I see fallen soldiers, hostages, images of Oct. 7. Equally heartbreaking, Equally infuriating.”

Part of the issue, al-Omari said, is that the political and policy priorities of the two sides are vastly different. 

“This is actually one of the few times that I can say that I’ve seen such a disconnect in the region, and that makes our job of finding policy solutions much more difficult because the policy solutions have inspired some commonalities of interest or concern in the parties,” he said.

The duo have spoken at about 80 college campuses together over the years, and Makovsky tries to take an approach he calls “More light, less heat” to the campus conversations. 

David Makovsky talks with students at Minnesota Hillel after a discussion on Israel and Palestine. (Photo by Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

David Makovsky talks with students at Minnesota Hillel after a discussion on Israel and Palestine. (Photo by Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

“We’re here more not to debate each other; we’re here to model a civil discourse,” Makovsky said. “We’re friends and we’re colleagues. And we can disagree on this point or that point, but without being disagreeable. And so we want to show students that it may be possible to do it differently.”

Al-Omari said that urban warfare is complex – made more so in Gaza by Hamas, which uses the citizens of Gaza as shields.

“From their perspective, the more that you have suffering, the more they will actually get political leverage,” he said. “To my mind, by the way, since October 7 was a terror attack of the highest magnitude, Israel’s objective to eliminate Hamas is a legitimate objective. But because you have an objective doesn’t mean that all the means that you use are acceptable.”

Throughout their meetings with highly placed sources in the Arab world, Makovsky and al-Omari both have heard that it would be best for the region if Israel were to destroy Hamas.

“Hamas has to lay down their arms and go somewhere else, because someone who does what happened on October 7 simply has no place in any political or any kind of conversation,” al-Omari said. “And this is not only my view or our view from Washington. This is a view from most Arab countries. They are a malicious actor.”

Makovsky said that it may be hard for many to wrap their heads around the idea of Israel and the Arab world being aligned – particularly since many see them as being at odds for so many decades. 

“They have common enemies,” Makovsky said. “None of them want ISIS; in the Middle East, they see ISIS as a destabilizer. They see Al-Qaeda as a destabilizer. They see the Islamic Jihad, they see Hamas as a destabilizer. And Of course, Iran is the ultimate destabilizer. 

“This is so hard for students to realize who think it’s Arabs on one side and Israel on another. And if you’re of a certain generation, if you’re older, this is like a shock to you, because you are thinking about the wars, from 1948 to 1973…But they’ll say ‘Israel: you’ve got to crush Hamas.’”

Makovsky said that in the Arab world, there’s two wars: The Israel-Hamas war, and also the war of political Islam that those countries are facing. He said an advisor to the leader of the United Arab Emirates told him “If Israel loses, we lose.”

“These countries want more Israel, which might be antithetical to what you see on a college campus in the Midwest,” he said. “But their view is, Israel’s what’s good for us because we need someone strong against Iran.”

Humanitarian issues came up several times in the conversation, both in questions from moderator Rhona Shwaid, and the audience. Al-Omari said that if the humanitarian issues don’t get addressed, Israel will not be able to finish Hamas.

“The humanitarian issue is the right thing to do morally,” Makovsky said. “And it’s also strategic in that it provides you a breathing space to deal with it with the finish this effort.”

Al-Omari also negated a talking point of many anti-Israel protestors, who accuse Israel of committing genocide.

“I don’t believe that there’s a genocide. I don’t believe there’s anything approaching a genocide,” al-Omari said. “In purely factual, legal terms, to establish genocide site we have to establish intent, and there’s absolutely nothing to indicate that there is such intent. 

“I bring it up because I am very disturbed when terms and concepts which should be reserved for the most heinous kind of experiences get cheapened like this for things like apartheid, things like genocide, things like Holocaust; these are things that are supposed to be reserved for just things which are of a different magnitude of a different level, but I feel that these are now being just cheapened.”