David Makovsky and Ghaith al-Omari are close friends, both experts with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On Sunday, they met in person for the first time in two years — a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic — at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. Their conversation on “dueling Palestinian and Israeli historical narratives came on the first day of a three-Sunday symposium, “The Israeli-Palestinian Dilemma: moving beyond who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Al-Omari, an adviser to the Palestinian Authority negotiating team from 1999-2001, said that Palestinians view all progress or concessions in the conflict with Israel through the lens of narrative.
“You simply cannot ignore narrative anymore,” he told the 25 attendees at the synagogue and the 400 watching on line.
Diplomats have utilized negotiation models that were unable to adequately account for narrative, al-Omari said. This is why more progress has not made to solve the conflict.
Whenever the status quo shifts slightly in the conflict, both Palestinians and Israelis ask themselves: “Has this validated or invalidated my narrative?”
The specifics of a negotiation – how borders move, how many bullets Palestinian security forces are allowed to have, where Israel positions its checkpoints – are far less of an issue if those in power are able to craft an outcome that fits into the narrative people believe in.
“The [Biden] administration understand that there is a lot you can accomplish short of a peace deal,” al-Omari said, adding that one reason the Clinton, Bush, and Trump administrations were unsuccessful was that they placed too much emphasis on a single peace deal and less on incremental agreements that steadily improve the situation over time.
Makovsky, a senior adviser to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, added that it is futile to determine whose narrative is right and whose is wrong, “Leave that to the historians,” he said.
Like al-Omari, Makovsky believes the conflict will not be solved by one “homerun” policy decision or summit. Mutual victories through “singles and doubles” will ultimately lead to improved relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
He pointed out that one of the most significant pitfalls for those discussing the conflict is the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the of the other side’s grievances. This (among other reasons) is why Hamas cannot be negotiated with. “Hamas does not accept a state of Israel the size of a telephone both on a beach in Tel Aviv,” he said.
Ultimately negotiators on both sides need to be able to return to their people and satisfy
their needs of national fulfilment, and that understanding how their peoples’ perspectives are informed by their culture and history are crucial in achieving this. “We have to understand the roles of religion, the roles of nationalism, the roles of 1948,” Makovsky said. “You cannot disentangle them.”
Al-Omari agreed, and added that it is events like those being hosted at Temple Rodef Shalom that will result in change.
“[We need to] amplify support for those who want to make a difference,” he said. “If we project this kind of thinking, we will see that difference.”
Still, al-Omari believes that the conflict has a long way to go. “I do not believe a peace deal is possible today,” he said.
Makovsky said he wished that Jews and Palestinians living outside of the region could see the improvements that are often ignored in the news.
“On an elite level, [Palestinians and Israelis] are recognizing their shared interests,” he said.
Gregg Skall, symposium chair, said that spotlighting the competing narratives was the impetus of the symposium.
“My struggle to understand the competing narratives, even to hear them clearly, led me to help bring this symposium about,” he said.
The Temple Rodef Shalom symposium will continue on Oct. 21 and 31. In-person attendees are required to be vaccinated and masked.