Ghaith al-Omari, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and former Palestinian Authority official, condemned the leadership of both the Palestinians and Israelis and declared the prospect of achieving a lasting peace “slim” in a lecture on Wednesday night.
As a former advisor to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and a member of the Palestinian negotiating team during the 2000 Camp David Summit on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Omari offered his audience a behind-the-scenes look into the peace process, describing it as a “bicycle.”
“You have to continue to move it,” he said. “If not, it falls.”
“The Israelis and Palestinians were on a collision path from the outset,” Omari said as he explored major milestones in the history of the conflict, noting the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as the year of independence for Israelis but the “Nakba,” a catastrophe, for Palestinians.
During Yasser Arafat’s chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO underwent a transformation whereby their “goal was made clear — the complete liberation of Palestine, i.e. the destruction of Israel, through armed struggle,” Omari said.
The PLO’s unsuccessful attempts at achieving statehood under Arafat allowed for the rise of Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni-Islamist fundamentalist organization, creating a political rift in the Palestinian national movement. With their support dwindling, the PLO recognized that they needed to adapt their original goal and tactic of armed resistance, Omari said.
“At that critical juncture, the Palestinian leadership realized that international recognition of Palestinian statehood was unachievable unless an alternate path was taken,” he added.
The speaker explained that the PLO’s “combined failure of diplomacy and poor governance” had weakened support for their approach and had strengthened the support for Hamas’ approach.
These events have resulted in today’s divided Palestinian movement, with the PLO controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip. “This divide,” Omari said, “is one that is very difficult, if not impossible, to bridge.”
“The visions of these two groups are simply irreconcilable. The PLO calls for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict and Hamas calls for a violent liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea,” Omari said.
Offering his own insight into the PLO-Hamas divide, Omari said that in his experience, “guns and politics do not mix well.”
The two groups have failed the Palestinian people in that neither the PLO or Hamas was able to achieve statehood, he said. “The PLO pursued a method of diplomacy and Hamas pursued a method of aggression, and yet, we don’t have a Palestinian state,” Omari explained.
He stated definitively that the idea of reaching a peace deal at the current time is “simply unrealistic.”
On both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, the civilian population and leadership seem unwilling to compromise, Omari said.
He attributed this unwillingness to each side’s “fundamental mistrust” of both their own government and the government of the opposition, and citizens of the opposing side.
“In this regard, the Israelis and Palestinians are mirror images of each other,” he said. “Under these conditions, the idea of peace is fanciful, nonsensical, and dreamy — it’s a nonstarter.”
Despite this pessimistic view, Omari maintained that the peace process must continue, pointing to two positive developments: the continued security cooperation between the Israeli government and PLO and the changing geopolitical dynamic of the region.
“The winds of political change are blowing. Arab nations including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are beginning to cooperate with Israel. The trick will be to get these countries to steer the Palestinians in the direction of peace,” he said.
In response to an audience question about the impact of President Trump’s 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Omari said that “the way it was done, the optics of it, made it very difficult for the Palestinians to accept. It is absolutely an obstacle to peace.”
Omari lamented that the Israel-Palestine issue has become overly divisive. “We are now penalizing engagement and rewarding acrimonious discourse,” he said.
“Let’s put aside our grievances, and to quote The Godfather, give [the Israelis and Palestinians] an offer they can’t refuse,” Omari said.