I have spent no small part of my life following and fighting for the Palestinian cause, but eventually it slipped through our fingers and was taken up by other groups and generations. At times I would marvel at the actions of the new standard bearers of “The Cause”, as though they were under hypnosis and unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, past and present, truth and wishful thinking.
In the end, there only remained a small set of scenarios like the well-known two-state solution, for which no one appears ready to make the necessary sacrifices; the one-state solution which might happen under the control of the current hate-filled, racist Israeli government; the confederal state characterised by two states in a single guise and incomplete independence for one side and control for the other; and the zero-solution or to let things keep going as they are. The latter is the historic recipe for this conflict. It is a recipe for instability in a region that is striving to remake itself.
The magic solution that is now the focus of discussion in political research circles is normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This is the fifth scenario. Its approach combines Saudi Arabia’s national security concerns and Israel’s regional security concerns with an attempt to formulate acceptable relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is informed by high hopes and some realities on the ground, and a prospect of some release from pain and a Palestinian behaviour that does not bother Israel. Its terms and concepts lead us to others pertaining to individuals and institutions whose political and electoral circumstances have no room for this approach, let alone willingness to pay the associated costs.
The approach as it is commonly formulated in familiar political, academic, and journalistic media does not take us too far away from the status quo. It may also add an element of regret and blame. Moreover, under the current circumstances, it places Saudi Arabia and other concerned Arab countries in a position similar to the situation at the time they proposed the Saudi/Arab peace initiative adopted in the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002.
History does not repeat itself, but it compels us to learn its lessons. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are ready for a permanent or partial solution, and it is unwise to entrust regional security to a bunch of extremists who not only fail to see it in their interest to help stabilise the region but are also more than happy to set it afire.
The best course at present is therefore, firstly, to sustain the reform processes that have been set in motion in many Arab countries, enabling them to acquire more autonomous power and influence and to avoid being distracted from their strategic goals. Secondly, we should consider the successful cases of Arab-Israeli relations based on Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, economic cooperation as exemplified by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, and the Abraham Accords, which were not peace agreements as there had been no de facto state of war, but rather frameworks for economic and technological normalisation.
Both the peace agreements and Abraham Accords were concluded through direct contact with the Israeli government. The current situation calls for something different. The decisive matters should not be settled with the Israeli government but directly with the Israeli people, as individual persons or organisations that declare their belief in peace and their desire to live in a stable region striving for prosperity.
The operative word is reciprocity: we make peace with those who want to make peace with us. Room for the sphere to expand would be made through major development programmes in collaboration with anyone prepared to open the doors and windows to the fresh, pure air of peace untainted by the stench of hatred and violence. In this regard, a great peace zone could be created in the northern Red Sea where the developmental areas in the Sinai in north-eastern Egypt converge with the developmental area in AlUla in north-western Saudi Arabia. The concept, in a very narrow form, had been aired in the past during the peace process in the 1990s. It spoke of a tourist “Riviera” in the Gulf of Aqaba in which different peoples could interact. The Arab-sponsored project today would be much bigger.
It would make no room for racism, hatred, or violence. Moreover, it would be directly concerned with the welfare of the Palestinians, whether inside Israel where they make up 21 per cent of the population, in Gaza, or in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, is based, or even in the Palestinian diaspora which is so rich in knowledge and human resources.
The basic idea here is based on the above-mentioned ongoing Arab reform processes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf. In these areas, there is a growing insistence on the need to press forward towards the sustainable development goals, an awareness that regional stability is essential to achieving those goals, and a certainty that adverse forces utilising religion and violence will come up against many other forces determined to interact with the conditions of economic, social, and cultural prosperity in the vicinity.
During efforts to promote peace treaties between Israel, Egypt and Jordan it was common to hear talk of the “peace dividends” that would accrue to the peoples of the region as a result of reductions in military spending.
This is a subject that needs to be explored in detail, which is where research institutions and think tanks come in. They should take as their starting point the fact that if there is to be a new era at the global level, there must be a new era at the regional level. New generations are on the rise, striving to forge a better future for their countries. Why should we skimp on efforts to give them the stability they need in a region in which stability has been elusive for decades?
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly