Ghaith Al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority and current senior fellow at the Washington Institute,  says that two states for two peoples remains the only solution. (Aaron-Levy Wolins/J. Staff)
Ghaith Al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority and current senior fellow at the Washington Institute, says that two states for two peoples remains the only solution. (Aaron-Levy Wolins/J. Staff)

PA must step up for Gaza, former Palestinian peace negotiator says in Oakland

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On the streets of Israel and within the Palestinian territories, it’s common to hear that the two-state solution is dead. 

After the heady days following the Oslo Accords of 1993, three decades of continued violence and the collapse of peace conference after peace conference have rendered the idea untenable, naive even. Israel’s current war in Gaza has only made the possibility more remote, many say.

But not Ghaith Al-Omari. An adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team during what were meant to be the final status talks with Israel from 1999 to 2001, Al-Omari then became a key drafter of the 2003 Geneva Accord, which laid out parameters for a two-state solution. Since 2015, he has served as a senior fellow in the Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship at the Washington Institute, a D.C. think tank that provides research and policy recommendations on the Middle East.

Al-Omari, 53 and a Jordanian-born Palestinian, has a unique perspective borne of years of work on the ground. And he believes that two states for two peoples remains the only solution.

“You have two peoples whose very self-identity is incompatible, and they each want a place where they can express their identities,” he said during an interview on Monday in Oakland. “You cannot have two national groups that feel very strongly about their identities be stuck in one state. That doesn’t work.”

Al-Omari, who was visiting the Bay Area for a series of private talks to Washington Institute trustees and supporters, agreed to sit down with J. to discuss the future of the region.

“Having been a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority, Ghaith has seen issues from the inside-out as well as the outside-in,” said Piedmont developer and philanthropist Moses Libitzky, who as the institute’s board president was shepherding him around the Bay Area. “His advice and insight is sought not only by the U.S. government, but by the Israeli and Arab governments as well.” 

Turning to the so-called final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians decades ago, Al-Omari said they were well-intentioned but never had a chance — not at that time, anyway. 

“The ideas were very well developed, but there were very difficult decisions that had to be made. And we did not have leaders who had the ability to make these decisions,” he said. The difficulties stemmed not from the complexity of the issues, he said, but from lack of political will. 

“I’m not sure that there was any moment where the politics in both societies were aligned to reach that deal,” he said. 

That lack of leadership persists today, he said, with neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas capable of making hard decisions.

“I know Abbas — I worked with him for close to a decade,” Al-Omari said. “I know that if you sit with him in a closed room, we can reach a deal. But he simply doesn’t have the credibility and legitimacy to make some of the key compromises.”

Al-Omari recalls that in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, smart, young Palestinians living in the diaspora returned to the region to take part in peace efforts “because they had hope.” That is not true today. But looking within the Arab world, Al-Omari does see something hopeful taking place. 

“The current failed Palestinian leadership is a product of a certain political mindset of the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s, when it was all about ideology and very little about deliverables. After the Arab Spring, the Arab world has changed. The center of gravity right now is in the Gulf, Saudi [Arabia], the United Arab Emirates. These are countries that are basically saying, forget the old ‘isms,’ Arabism and Islamism. They’re focused more on: How do you deliver to your public? It’s about effective governance, about responsive governance.”

Recent polls show that young Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians no longer dream of moving to London or New York, but to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, he noted. 

What I have felt since Oct. 7 in my trips to the region is a renewed interest in resolving this issue once and for all

Turning to the future of Gaza, Al-Omari dismisses the option of a long-term Israeli occupation, which he said would make no one happy. Ditto for any Gulf State coalition taking over.

The only workable future is for Palestinians to control their own government. And today, he said, that means the Palestinian Authority, which despite its corruption and ineffectiveness, at least belongs to the Palestinian people. He believes the Arab world, Europe and the United States would not only be on board, but would force the PA to make long-awaited reforms as a condition for remaining in power.

“What I’m hearing in Arab capitals that I go to, what I’m hearing in European capitals that I go to, what they want, is for the PA to come and be the address. Everyone knows that the PA, in its current form, doesn’t have the capabilities, and, more importantly, perhaps, the credibility, to do this. One idea that I heard is, for example, the PA creates an independent authority, a structure for Gaza that does governance, that has the PA’s letterhead but is completely independent, populated by capable, independent individuals,” he said.

“The Arabs would be actually quite willing to be part of a structure like this. I think giving a role to the PA, a symbolic role, and conditioning it on benchmarks that they have to meet when it comes to institution building, reform, etc.” is what Gaza will need, he added.

In both scenarios — the future of Gaza and of the West Bank — Al-Omari sees a need for strong American involvement, one that will require presidential initiative. 

“The only one who can get all of these actors together is the U.S.,” he said. “Without U.S. leadership, the Palestinian leadership will find a way to evade the pressure to reform.”

The U.S. does not have a good record of creating regime change in the Middle East, he acknowledged. “Look at Iraq and Afghanistan,” Al-Omari said. Still, he said, he believes there will be buy-in from American allies in the Arab world, something he would not have thought before Oct. 7. 

“Something has changed. Before, there was a tendency to think, and I’m as guilty as the next person, that the Palestinian issue was a contained, containable conflict. Oct. 7 showed that it still has the potential to destabilize the whole region,” he said.

“So what I have felt since Oct. 7 in my trips to the region is a renewed interest in resolving this issue once and for all, not based on any kind of love or affinity for, you know, our Arab brothers and all of that nice stuff, but based on pure, cold calculation.”

The rising powers in the Middle East — the emirates and Saudi Arabia in particular — have “pinned their future on economic development,” he said, and that requires political stability. 

“There is a moment now. What is really animating Arab leaders today is a sense of self-interest and a sense that [the Palestinian issue] continues to be a point of blockage for their future plans.”

Al-Omari left the Palestinian Authority in 2006 and moved to D.C. He lives in Great Falls, Virginia, with his American wife and their 18-year-old son. He loves his job — thinking and writing about U.S. policies in the Middle East and helping to shape that policy — but he wouldn’t hesitate to move to an independent Palestine if and when there is real reform within the PA and new leaders rise to shake off the present system that rewards mediocrity and inertia. 

“If I feel that there’s a real Palestinian leadership that’s being created, I would drop everything and go. And I’m not alone in this,” he said.

“Create some energy. Create some hope. People will move,” he added. “Look at the early history of Israel. Look at all the Jewish talent that left everything and came. The best Jewish minds wanted to be part of building this country because there was a sense of energy and possibility. So I think, do this for the Palestinians, and I and others will be very, very happy to be part of that.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].