J Street panelists discuss contemporary politics

By ABBY BIESMAN | November 13, 2014

Hopkins J Street U held a panel featuring Ori Nir and Ghaith Al-Omari on Friday in the multipurpose room of the Smokler Center for Jewish Life. During the session, sophomore Julia DeVarti, J Street U president, posed questions to the panelists. Both guests discussed their resolutions to end the conflict in Israel — they both believe in a feasible two-state solution. However, they believe the solution they seek is probably unattainable in the immediately upcoming years.

J Street U is a pro-Israel and pro-peace organization that supports a two-state solution for Israel and a Palestinian state in the Middle East, maintaining the belief that being pro-Israel and being pro-Palestine do not have to be mutually exclusive. Nir and Al-Omari work with Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), respectively. Both organizations are based in Washington, D.C. and have collaborated in creating the initiative “Peace Partners.” APN is the sister organization of an Israeli group Shalom Achshav, which means “peace now.” ATFP supports, in particular, the creation of a Palestinian state.

These organizations are trying to reach beyond Washington, D.C. in order to garner support from college students. The groups collaborated because each was searching for a similar goal: a home for people who are pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

The panel began with a discussion about the Temple Mount. In recent controversies, certain Jewish and Israeli groups have considered building a temple on the Temple Mount, a site holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims that is located in the Arab quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Today, the Dome of the Rock rests in this location.

Activists for building on the Temple Mount on the Israeli side were previously marginal and typically consisted of minorities in the Jewish community. However, in the past 15 years or so, more organizations have been planning on building a temple on the Temple Mount.

“If you look at the tensions surrounded by the Temple Mount, there are legislative initiatives that are trying to enhance the footprint here,” Nir said.

Nir commented that with the government becoming involved, the idea of building on the Temple Mount has become more mainstream for Israelis.

Al-Omari presented the idea that Israel building on this site is a threat to the Islamic holy site.

“It’s not clear to me how you can de-escalate Jerusalem,” Al-Omari said, reflecting on the tensions created given its holiness to different religions.

Furthermore, Al-Omari contends that in the past couple months, the Israeli government has allowed Israelis to challenge the status quo.

Because of Jerusalem’s importance to many religions and groups, there has been an ongoing controversy about how to divide the city, as well as the country. Thich is reflected in the Temple Mount controversy.

The panel also discussed Jewish settlements in areas like the West Bank.

“Settlements are a huge security liability for Israel,” said Nir. “[They] perpetuate the conflict.”

This is an issue over which the Jewish and Israeli communities are fundamentally split. Al-Omari contends that from a Palestinian point of view, these settlements do not make it appear as though Israel is negotiating for peace.

“Facts are less relevant than perceptions,” Al-Omari said in response to Nir.

The panelists agreed that the building of settlements is not a measure that supports the two-state solution. They also discussed whether or not the current governments in Israel and Gaza have the capacity to generate a two-state solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was democratically elected. According to Nir, if creating a two-state solution were one of his priorities, Netanyahu would be an effective negotiator.

“[He is] not a willing partner,” Nir said.

Currently, Fatah, the most prominent faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has formed a unified government with Hamas in Gaza. Nir believes that this unified government is an opportunity for Israel.

“This government has proven to be extremely convenient for everyone involved,” Al-Omari said.

If Israel were to create a two-state solution, Al-Omari claims that Israel would most likely partner with the PLO rather than with Hamas, considering the hostile relationship between Netanyahu and Hamas. He suggested the joint government in Gaza would not be effective now for a two-state solution.

To this end, Al-Omari discussed the civilians’ supposed search for peace in the area. However, peace is not an accurate description for what they seek, according to Al-Omari. He said that in this situation, peace only means the end to the physical war.

At the fundamental level, Al-Omari stated that the creation of Gaza was flawed. He suggested that when two parties make an agreement, both sides must have their interests represented to reduce conflict. In the settlement of Gaza, the two sides did not have their interests equally represented, according to Al-Omari. He believes that if both sides do not agree upon a two-state solution, the conflict will continue.

“The problem is not in the nature of a two-state solution, but in the nature of politics,” Al-Omari said.

Nir, like Al-Omari, believes that a two-state solution is feasible and that security can be maintained under two states. However, he noted that security measures will likely have to be heightened.

“We have not passed in any kind of way the line of reversibility — the situation on the ground is still reversible in many ways,” Nir said.

Nir commented that, given the historical hostility between Israelis and Palestinians, the parties’ willingness to discuss a partnership is remarkable. Al-Omari noted, though, that the countries are nowhere near having a two-state solution quite yet.

The speakers agreed that a two-state solution is possible but that such a goal faces many obstacles.

The audience received the speakers well.

“My opinions of the speakers is that they were both extremely rational and were able to talk about the conflict without letting emotions get the best of them,” freshman Marty Feuerstein-Mendik said. “They did not really sway my opinions as much as they put my opinions into the words that I have never myself been able to express.”

Freshman Daphne Schlesinger also appreciated that the speakers were more logical than emotional.

“The fact that [Al-Omari] was actually a negotiator... was really cool, and it was interesting to hear what he had to say,” Schlesinger said. “I think it was really important for me to listen to it, because they were so logical and so thoughtful about it. When I am so emotional about these issues, I try to be logical, but it’s hard for me... In that sense, it was a good reminder to take yourself out of the situation sometimes.”

Editor’s note: Julia DeVarti is a Managing Editor of The News-Letter. She had no involvement in the writing or editing of this article.

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