The Covid-19 has proven once again that there are threats to peoples that are not prevented by separation walls, advanced weapons or military occupation. In facing these threats that do not distinguish between nationalities, race or religion, and do not recognise political borders or natural barriers, cooperation, solidarity, and the accord among peoples remain the true and effective line of defence.
The Israelis and Palestinians who live today on the land of historic Palestine should realise that they are facing together a single destiny in the face of this deadly virus. Their only option to overcome it is to join forces. We hope that we will all benefit from the painful lessons of the virus for humanity to end the conflict between these two peoples and establish a comprehensive, just and lasting peace between Israel and the rest of its Arab neighbours and with the entire Islamic world as well.
Let us hope that Israeli peace advocates and human rights activists will call on their government to vaccinate all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories against Covid-19. This would turn the pandemic into a major confidence and peace-building step between the two peoples. Israel would build on its great success in vaccinating the world’s highest percentage of people against the virus. In this way, we could use this catastrophic pandemic to create confidence and hope of achieving peace in our troubled region.
If the global system through international engagement beyond the coronavirus pandemic will be heading towards a new adjustment and restructuring phase to confront such trans-boundary dangers, the Middle East with its enormous human and natural resources along with its difficulties and explosive conflicts must be at the heart of this change towards a better world. That change must be based on the will of the peoples of the region and their genuine desire to live in peace and to cooperate to achieve a better future for generations to come.
In today’s world with its open virtual spaces and in the wake of the Arab revolutions, it is more than ever necessary to respect the aspirations of the Arab peoples in seeking equal rights like other peoples and achieving a Palestinian-Israeli peace that will end the Israeli occupation that has been in place since 1967, establish a comprehensive and just peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and open the door for regional cooperation that brings security and prosperity to all the peoples of the region.
There is no doubt that it has become clear that sooner or later the Israeli people will have to choose between two momentous options, regardless of the level of importance of the peace settlement on the current list of priorities of Israeli politicians. The first option is to consolidate the status quo and even try to impose and legitimise it through unilateral measures by annexing large portions of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that were occupied by Israel in 1967 and consolidating the unilateral control of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which has only been recognised by the previous administration in the United States.
We realise that supporters of expansion and domination inside Israel are promoting this first option with arguments about Israeli military superiority that enable it to continue the occupation of Palestinian land in the absence of effective international pressure to put an end to such occupation and to violations of international law and international legitimacy.
The proponents of this approach have so far succeeded in persuading the Israeli people not to give adequate attention and importance to the achievement of peace with the Palestinians in their leadership choices in elections.
The continued success in the upcoming Israeli elections of the supporters of this approach will lead to an attempt – which we trust will not succeed – to impose this de facto situation on the Palestinian people and turn Israel into a new type of apartheid regime. It will not result in the surrender of the Palestinians. On the contrary, it will result in their revolt against this system with the aim of defeating it. At the same time, it will bring down those moderate Palestinian leaders who call for peace and cooperation with Israel and will embolden extremists who call for war and confrontation.
The continuation of the status quo will never be accepted by the Arab peoples. It will cause the continued absence of peace and normal relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the loss of golden opportunities for cooperation among them in facing common dangers and developing regional projects that bring prosperity to all the peoples of the region.
PEACE OPTION: The second option that we call on the Israeli people to adopt and call on the Israeli government to pursue is to actively pursue the Arab Peace Initiative that aims to establish a Palestinian State on the land occupied by Israel in 1967 with its capital of Al-Quds Al-Sharif (Jerusalem) and to establish a lasting and comprehensive peace not only between Israel and Palestine but also with all the Arab countries along the lines of the ongoing and successful peaceful relations between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan that have continued for several decades.
We do not need to be reminded today that the existing Israeli peace with Egypt and Jordan has brought Israel security guarantees that no military occupation or security barriers can provide. More importantly, the three countries today cooperate in various fields, including on countering terrorism. Could these things have been achieved in the absence of peace? Can this cooperation between the three countries survive the fatal despair that would result from the continued Israeli occupation or the waves of instability that any Israeli attempt to legalise the imposition of that occupation would create?
If Israel declares its readiness to respond to our initiative, this will open the way for starting multi-track negotiations. A track with the Palestinians would address outstanding core issues such as borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem, which could turn into the capital of both countries and a symbol of peace and regional and international cooperation while remaining a united city.
A parallel track with the Arab Quartet would consider possible regional and international cooperation programmes to support that peace and achieve greater benefits from the region’s natural and human economic resources for the benefit of Arabs, Israelis and the other peoples of the region. This could open the door for the start of negotiations with countries of the region and international partners supporting peace in order to achieve regional security measures that would guarantee the security of all the peoples of the region.
We are aware that the situation in the region and the world has dramatically changed since the beginning of the 21st century and even before, and that it will change even more after the current pandemic. Our goal is to employ that change in favour of peace and regional cooperation opportunities because it will never succeed in consolidating the occupation. It could even lead to more bloodshed and the loss of more lives, both of which we are yearning to avoid.
The overwhelming majority of Arabs are reaching out to their Israeli neighbours and demonstrating their willingness to work with them and with the Palestinians to realise a dream that has eluded us all for decades and to make the necessary mutual concessions to achieve peace. Despite the bitterness of the status quo and its brutality towards Palestinians under occupation, we are confident that most Israelis do not wish to continue that occupation and that they wish to live side by side with an independent Palestinian State with the necessary guarantees to ensure security for all.
We trust that Arab and Israeli peace advocates can put in place a framework for an effective and innovative programme for regional and international cooperation that can provide ways to advance development and not conflict, and see Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian and Israeli States and as a religious and cultural centre of attraction for the peoples of the whole world regardless of their religions or beliefs. Our cooperation would move the Middle East to a position that is politically, economically and culturally advanced thanks to cooperation rather than the fighting among its peoples.
The pandemic, in our view, can represent an opportunity to clear minds, dismiss claims of superiority and control, and refute the lies of those advocating terrorism and inciting hatred and the continuation of conflict. We hope that our call finds a constructive response among thinkers, opinion-leaders and politicians in Israel and the support of nations yearning for long-awaited peace in the Middle East. We will work and pray to achieve this objective.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister. This article was submitted for publication in Hebrew and English in Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly