David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, visited Oakland last week, shuttling between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to address the topic of Arab-Israeli relations. Over the course of the day, he also discussed his recent work as a senior adviser on Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace negotiations team.
Makovsky’s visit was supported by Hillel Jewish University Center and the Israel on Campus Coalition, a self-described “nat-ional network of students, faculty and
professionals dedicated to strengthening the pro-Israel movement on campus.”
Certainly no stranger to groomed (or snowy) lawns and lecture halls, Makovsky is a regular on college campuses. He is an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and routine speaker at universities nationwide.
“I’m concerned that students on college campuses are placed in polarized and charged environments,” he said. “There is a value in coming to campuses and setting the record straight.”
“People are so used to bad news,” Makovsky stated at the onset of his afternoon remarks, “sometimes you need to step back and give context.”
While referencing his own involvement in Arab-Israeli relations — he covered the topic for nearly a decade at The Jerusalem Post — Makovsky laid out “four people who made a difference.”
Beginning with Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, Makovsky explained how the assassinated leader, who signed a peace deal with Israel, “broke through the conflict.”
“Since Sadat, there have been no more interstate wars,” he pointed out.
Makovsky then praised Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister whose own sacrifices for peace included being gunned down by a Jewish right-wing assassin.
“He defined leadership,” Makovsky said of Rabin. “It’s not just saying tough things to the other side; it’s saying tough things to your own people. Rabin understood that when you’re strong, that’s when you compromise.”
After sharing details of his own relationship with Rabin — as a journalist, Makovsky frequently interviewed the Israeli leader — Makovsky moved on to the remaining two iconic individuals, who he admitted were “less obvious” peace leaders.
To the surprise of many in attendance, Makovsky praised Salam Fayyad and Danny Gold.
Fayyad, the former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, “had an ethos of accountability, said Makovsky. “He was a believer that you can’t just complain.”
Gold, he pointed out, was the “father of the Iron Dome, a defensive weapon par excellence.”
What made these individuals great, according to Makovsky, was that each “said the impossible is possible.” For their actions, Makovsky would place these men on his fictional Middle East Mount Rushmore, he said.
Makovsky, though, spent the bulk of his time describing his recent efforts as part of Kerry’s team to broker a peace deal.
“We tried whatever we could to bring a peace accord,” he said of the rounds of discussions that ultimately fell flat shortly before the outbreak of last summer’s Israeli offensive against Hamas targets in Gaza. “We brought them to the 40-yard line but couldn’t close the gaps.”
Makovsky said the bulk of the blame lies with failed leadership on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
“There are two leaders who are more risk averse and couldn’t bring the public in,” he said in reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Still, he urged the students in his audiences to “hold their heads high,” imparting to them a charge to “think about ways of bringing people together.”
“We should not import the politics of confrontation,” he said of the region, “we should export the politics of coexistence.”
One idea that Makovsky floated was an alternative spring break program, where students would travel to the region and build kindergartens in both Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. Such a program would offer participants an opportunity to better appreciate the security situation, he said. “Whenever people are educated they understand the complexities of the issue.”
Given its many nuances, the topic of Arab-Israeli relations often incites passion on college campuses. Nonetheless, Makovsky’s audience was largely subdued. Following the event, while exiting the lecture hall, Makovsky explained his apparent ability to temper attitudes.
“The message is a message of coexistence,” he said. “It is forward looking and self-reflective; what’s possible and not possible. It’s not Polly-annaish.”
Sabal Subedie, a CMU student, said that he attended Makovsky’s talk because of personal interest.
“It’s a really interesting issue that I’ve been following since 11th grade,” said Subedie. “Everyone is hoping something will come out of it.”
“The importance of the event,” said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director and CEO, “is that this is an opportunity to share a balanced and expert perspective of real life in Israel and the Middle East. … Listening to this guy is not like listening to Jon Stewart.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.