Interview with Omar Dajani

by Emmery Raw

Omar M. Dajani has led an internationally significant life. He served as senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team from 1999 to 2001 while working in the Palestinian Territories. This was during the last phase of peace talks with Israel. After this, he was advisor to United Nations Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen from 2001 to 2003. Dajani was influential in the processes of collaborating and drafting the Middle East Roadmap. The Roadmap was developed as the Bush Administration’s outline of the process to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dajani is proficient in Arabic and was immediately involved in many efforts to foster peace. He recently returned from Ramallah where he witnessed the destruction and scarcity inflicted by the Israeli invasion.

Prior to his work overseas, Dajani clerked for Judge Dorothy Nelson on the U.S. Court of Appeals and was litigation associate for Sidley & Austin. Dajani is currently an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California, where he teaches courses in Foreign Investment and Development, Immigration and Nationality Law, Internal Organizations, and Contracts.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in law?

As a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist, until I realized, sadly, that I couldn’t draw! It really wasn’t until I took a couple of legal theory classes as an undergraduate that I started seriously to consider becoming a lawyer. After two years in advertising after college, practicing law seemed like it might be more intellectually satisfying and socially redeeming than the work I was doing, and so off I went to law school.

Was your goal from the beginning of your career to work in the Middle East?

It wasn’t. Although I had spent a fair amount of time in the Arab world growing up, and had long been interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I first visited Palestine/Israel when I went to work there in 1999. I had been working as an associate at a law firm in Washington, and I was contacted by a former law school classmate, a Palestinian-Canadian, who told me that the PLO badly needed legal advisers for the permanent status negotiations, which were about to commence. I eventually agreed to take a one-year leave of absence from my firm. The expectation was that the negotiations would be complete in a year, but I got hooked, professionally and emotionally.

Have you had a single influential mentor in your career? How did that person guide you?

I am grateful to many people who have guided me personally and professionally, but I can’t point to a single mentor.

Congratulations on your accomplishments. How was it that you attained your position as Political Advisor to United Nations Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larson?

Thanks. While working as legal adviser to the PLO, I became well acquainted with the UN team. They needed someone to analyze political trends in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to work on legal and political reform, and to help develop peace-building initiatives, and I was lucky enough to be selected for the post.

While working for the UN, what was the most rewarding experience you had while in Palestine?

As legal adviser to the PLO, I spent much of my time in my office and in negotiating rooms around the world. What was wonderful about my work with the UN is that I was able to get out into Palestinian society. Also to meet with rising democrats and city councils and resistance committees. In addition to get a rich sense of the length and breadth of Palestinian politics. At the same time, I had the opportunity finally to see the country in all of its scarred splendor and to see how people lived in it.

Please tell me about how your education did and did not prepare you for your experiences in Palestine.

The most useful aspects of my education were learning to become a critical thinker and to write effectively. What I was unprepared for, I think, was learning how to maneuver in a political setting. I don’t think I understood how critical relationship building was or what it comprised, particularly in the Middle East.

What prompted your decision to become a professor?

What attracted me to legal academia was the possibility of combining opportunities to reflect on and write about the issues I care about with the inspiration (and entertainment value) of teaching and the possibility to continue to work on “real world” projects. I hope to continue to pursue all three tracks.

Did you find the life change from working as a Political Advisor to a professor a difficult adjustment?

At times academic life has felt a bit marginal. Although I was ready to leave the Middle East when I did. Increasingly sad developments there have reassured me that I made the right choice (for me, at least). I do miss the intensity and spotlight at times.

How does your previous experience in the Middle East affect your teaching style?

I think I am more apt to appreciate the complexity of law (particularly in the international setting), to recognize its frailties as well as the opportunities it offers. As a result, I think my teaching is less dogmatic than it might have been.

Do you plan to continue teaching or do you have other pursuits in mind?

Both! I love teaching; I learn so much from it. But I also look forward to continuing to write, and continue to work with NGOs and international organizations on a range of projects. I’d love to do another stint at the UN down the line.

How are you now active in the peace process in the Middle East?

Right now, my role is limited to watching from the sidelines. Occasionally offering advice to the PLO ’s Negotiations Support Unit on international law issues and on negotiation strategy. I am also doing work to reach out to the Palestinian/Arab and Jewish communities here in the USA. In addition to try to build more common understanding than currently exists.

What do you see as the most important thing Americans should know about the peace efforts being made in the Middle East?

That the single thing that is most likely to bring peace; i.e., an unequivocal commitment by Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Shebaa Farms and return those lands to Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. Which has not yet been offered.

Americans tend to say, “Oh, Arabs and Jews have been fighting forever and will continue to fight forever.” Not true. This is a recent conflict with (primarily) a territorial focus. Although Israel offered to return much of the West Bank and Golan Heights in 2000, it insisted at the time on retaining 5-10% of the West Bank and the Golan Heights’ frontage on the Sea of Galilee. One may say that the Palestinians were inflexible for turning down the offer, but would Americans accept to cede 5-10% of our own country to a foreign power particularly if it included New York and San Francisco and the Mississippi River? There is tremendous opportunity for peace, but it must include an end to the occupation. That is the critical issue.

What is your current writing focus?

I am writing about how law functions in international conflict resolution processes. I am also writing about states governed by survivors of genocide (examining Israel, Rwanda, and the Balkan states) and their attitudes toward international law and institutions. Finally, I’ve been commissioned to write a new biography of Yasser Arafat.

What was the most influential piece of advice given to you?

To be forgiving of others and of myself. •