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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Middle East peace requires fresh thinking

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© AP Images, The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
© AP Images, the US President Bill Clinton and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
© AP Images, the car of Mahmoud Abbas speeds away after he was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2005, at the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, tried to reassure Israelis that Palestinians would never return to their homes. “We must do everything to ensure they never do return… The old will die and the young will forget,” he said. He could not have been more wrong; the word ‘forget’ isn’t in the Palestinians’ lexicon. For 63 long years, they’ve borne terrible hardships, suffered unbearable humiliation and fought for freedom with nothing but stones and their bare hands. But, sadly, they not only face a cruel adversary, their own leaders have let them down.

The late Yasser Arafat had his faults, but he was a great patriot who genuinely loved his people. He did his utmost to forge the ‘Peace of the Brave’ with Yitzhak Rabin. However, when George W. Bush came to power the man who was once the most frequent visitor to the Clinton White House was treated like a pariah by the Americans, while the Israelis kept him prisoner in his bombed-out Ramallah compound.

Arafat wasn’t able to achieve what he set out to do because he refused to compromise for the sake of future Palestinian children. Nevertheless, he earned his people’s loyalty and spoke for almost all of them. The same cannot be said of those who came after him. Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salem Fayyad lack charisma and because they have put too much faith in the US intermediary they have lost currency credibility with the voting public.

And, judging by ‘The Palestinian Papers’ leaked by Al Jazeera, they were willing to accept any crumbs that fell from Israel’s table and sell out the refugees’ right of return. Moreover, they were alerted about Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza in advance and, under pressure from the Obama White House, they shamefully stonewalled a UN Human Rights Resolution, supporting the Goldstone Report on war crimes committed during that offensive.

Likewise, Hamas has little credibility to negotiate peace, primarily because it is funded by Iran and has been classed as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU, the UK, Canada and Japan. In any case, the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said there will be no peace negotiations with any Palestinian Authority that includes members of Hamas.

So where do the Palestinians go from here? It seems to me that both Fatah and Hamas must put their people before their political ambitions and admit failure. There is no time to waste as long as Israel continues to expand its Jewish colonies on the West Bank and ousting Palestinians from Occupied East Jerusalem. The 22 per cent of their homeland that Palestinians were due to receive under the Oslo Accords is shrinking year-on-year and it’s probable that soon a two-state solution will no longer be viable.

I’ve thought long and hard about this impasse and would suggest a practical option. The current Palestinian government should agree to act as a caretaker authority, charged with the day-to-day running of the territories. At the same time, it should work with prominent Palestinians around the world to appoint a committee solely responsible for negotiating peace.

This would be made up of respected Palestinian individuals, chosen on the basis of their loyalty, reputation and resume, rather than on their bank account or their crony connections; every potential member would be thoroughly security vetted and have a proven record of success.

Included in such a committee with the irrevocable power to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians could be a senior representative of the GCC. To kick-start the process, the PA and other Palestinian bodies could organise a conference – under the GCC’s umbrella, if desired – to which eligible candidates would be invited.

To give selected candidates legitimacy, a referendum should be held on the West Bank and Gaza as well as amongst the diaspora of Palestinians around the world, under the auspices of UNWRA, with which all Palestinian refugees are registered. With committed backing from Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf States, the committee would have far more international clout than the PA has ever had.

All negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state. The right of return is set in stone within UN resolutions and should be non-negotiable. On these fundamentals there should be no compromise. Israel’s apartheid wall should be dismantled and destroyed, but ideally the Jewish colonies constructed on Palestinian land should be evacuated before being handed over to the Palestinian Authority to house the growing Palestinian population. And to ensure the prosperity of the new state, a ‘Marshall Plan’ should be devised with those countries primarily responsible for the Palestinian catastrophe being the main financial contributors.

In the meantime, those Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees should begin treating them as human beings instead of political pawns. There are almost three million Palestinian people in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, large numbers of whom are still consigned to squalid camps with the barest minimum of educational and medical facilities. Many have been abandoned without the right to work or their own land; many more are stateless.

Governments have been promising them that one day they will go back to their homeland, for too long. For the elderly, still holding the keys to houses that no longer exist, that would be ideal but for the sake of Palestinian babies born with a God-given right to a decent and prosperous future, reality must be faced. Stateless people, living in refugee camps, need to be rescued urgently. They should be offered full citizenship and if they get the chance, the possibility of going home one day. It will be up to them whether they stay or go. It’s hypocritical for Arab leaders to complain about the way Israel treats Palestinians when so many have been condemned to a life of misery by their own Arab brothers. What wealthy brother would allow a sibling or a cousin to drink polluted water or rot in a rat infested shanty town?

Fresh ideas, as well as a strong commitment from the Arab World to get involved, are needed before the Palestinian’s hopes can be realised. The old guard has had its day. It is time for dynamic new people, willing to roll up their sleeves and think outside the box.

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