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Another approach to the Palestinian question

Recognition of realities on the ground should govern, for both sides, resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Abdel Moneim Said , Wednesday 12 Jun 2019
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What follows will not meet the approval of many people for whom I have great admiration and respect. In fact, it will probably provoke anger and perhaps curses.

In any case, Ramadan and the Eid Al-Fitr are over and, although Benyamin Netanyahu failed to form a government and called for new elections in December, Washington will probably go ahead and unveil its long-awaited initiative for a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Observers will have noticed how the road to this initiative led through challenges to the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), to the existence of the refugee question and to the status of Jerusalem.

Above all, as Washington sees it, the Palestinian question is not about a national liberation movement striving toward self-determination and the establishment of a state.

Rather, it is about hardship under harsh economic circumstances the alleviation of which would remove the problem. Proceeding from this definition of the Palestinian question, Washington announced plans to organise a workshop in Manama to explore the economic route to happiness and prosperity for the Palestinians.

Strangely, merely the mystery surrounding this initiative, which is widely known as the “Deal of the Century”, a title that is significant in its own right, was sufficient to lead the Palestinian Authority (PA) to proclaim its intent to boycott Manama and everything else.

On top of this, it refused to receive the transfer from Israel of tax and customs funds earmarked for the Palestinians on the grounds that it was short an amount equivalent to what the PA pays to the families of Palestinian martyrs and detainees.

The point, here, is not whether the PA is right or wrong in its stance but whether that stance is appropriate to the demands of the current situation. In short, is it the right policy?

The PA should not overlook realities. The Palestinian people are split between the West Bank and Gaza. Regardless of who is at fault, the PA is split between Ramallah and Gaza and between Fatah and Hamas.

Regardless of how one might describe it, representatives from 32 states attended the ceremonies of the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and more than half a million Israelis live in the West Bank, which does not include those living in East and West Jerusalem.

Although the Arabs continue to agree that the Palestinian cause is the Arabs’ central cause and that their political aim is to establish a Palestinian state within the pre-4 June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem, in the framework of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, it is impossible to ignore the fact that each Arab country has its own crucial challenges, such as rebuilding what the “Arab Spring” destroyed, warding off threats to territorial waters and oil, safeguarding domestic cohesion, and seeing through long-awaited reforms that can no longer be deferred.

The PA cannot ignore all of this. Its withdrawal from the arena by boycotting unfair diplomacy and registering stances whenever the opportunity avails itself will not make unpleasantness go away and will not improve the Palestinian position.

What is needed is a new way of thinking, one based on an awareness of the basic law that regulates the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at its heart: the law of “creating realities on the ground”.

This is what the Zionist movement has done ever since its inception in 1897. They started with a “national homeland” and by 1942 they were speaking about a state.

The rest is history, from the founding of that state to its expansion and absorption of immigrants from around the world who speak numerous languages, to the Israel we know today.

The Arab, and particularly the Palestinian, approach was the opposite. It always called for justice, rejection and boycott. It harped on international resolutions as though the world had a central government and judiciary.

At the same time, it had a huge capacity for ignoring what was happening on the ground in Palestine, in the region and, indeed, in the world in which the tide of change made important international players that had long supported the Palestinians — such as India, China and Russia — speak of the “two-state solution” while maintaining close relations with Israel. This is a translation of realities on the ground.

Fortunately, there are some crucial Palestinian realities on the ground. The first is that more than six million Palestinians live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Of these, 700,000 live in Israel, carry an Israeli passport and participate in Israeli political life.

A second reality is that, despite the degradation they have experienced, the Palestinian people have their own governing authority, their first in history. When the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was formed, both Palestine and Israel signed as cofounders.

This was recognition of Palestinian sovereignty over the territorial waters off Gaza in which significant natural gas discoveries are likely to be made.

Thirdly, whatever progress Palestine experienced (which also led to Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian and Jordanian territory) was achieved through direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Fourthly, there is the reality of mutual interdependence between Israel and Palestine in the fields of security, common currency, economy and other areas.

These four realities on the ground are not negligible. Their significance derives from how they can be put to work in a Palestinian strategy for dealing with Israel.

Such a strategy must work to support these realities, inclusive of the Palestinians’ continued existence on their land and rejection of anything that might deprive them of this right.

In addition, the strategy must seek to promote opportunities for investment, economic growth, institution building, and strengthening opportunities for peaceful coexistence with the Israeli people through direct negotiations and direct influence on Israeli policy.

This interaction between Israel and Palestine not only throws the question of occupation into relief but also the question of equality.

Ultimately, Palestinian and Arab policymakers cannot afford to overlook developments that the forthcoming US initiative will set into motion.

Certainly, it is possible to undermine that initiative through opposition and boycott. However, the consequence is the perpetuation of the status quo — one that could grow even worse since it works to strengthen the hand of the Israeli and American ultra-right as well as the hand of Arab extremists such as Hamas and like-minded parties who use “the cause” as a means to bring the Arab temple crashing down on the Arab state and the heads of all the Arabs in it.

The alternative is to draw inspiration from president Anwar Al-Sadat who saw the matter at hand at the time as a problem between us and Israel, rather than between us and the US, with the US and other parties only coming in later as facilitators and mediators.

As for the “deal”, it should be concluded between the parties to the conflict that has lasted for more than a century and it should engage them on the ground economically, politically and strategically. Above all, it should be borne in mind that perpetuating the status quo is not a solution.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Another approach to the Palestinian question

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