When Yasser Arafat, in the framework of the Oslo agreement, accepted 22% of historic Palestine, many people including myself had reservations.
Why recognize the State of Israeli within the 1967 borders when Israel hadn’t yet recognized the state of Palestine or signaled a willingness to halt settlement construction and rapidly move toward a withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the occupied territories? The risk, many people said, was that the Israelis would simply refuse to give up East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. What would we do then? Arafat replied to such fears by assuring us that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “the Israeli Charles de Gaulle” as he likened him, was his partner. The two of them, he and Rabin, would end the conflict that had lasted too long and destroyed too many lives.
Of course, Arafat was aware of those Israelis who suspected him of using Oslo as a plot, and of planning to launch a final war against Israel from lands “given” to him by the Rabin government.
In the countless meetings I and other friends and advisers had with Arafat, never did he talk about any such conspiracy. His vision was for Gaza to be the “lungs” of our new state, a place with an international airport, a harbor, light industries, and new housing for our refugees. Citizens of Palestine would be able to jump in their cars or even board a train and travel along a highway or tracks to the West Bank. A unified people, willing to turn the page on the past, would make peace with Israel, a final, lasting and warm peace.
This seems like a distant utopian dream in today’s landscape of walls, hermetic closures, and a fractured Palestinian people. The plans for the sea port and the Gaza-West Bank road link are still filed away and ready to be implemented; there just seems no political way of doing so.
But the logic that was behind Arafat’s peace with Rabin is as sound today as it was in 1993. Israelis and Palestinians have no choice but to find a way to share the Holy Land, and this will happen only when our two nations are prepared once and for all to set to once side their maximalist claims. Israelis have to learn to live within their 78%, just as we must use our talents to transform our 22% into a unified and productive democracy.
For us Palestinians, the reconciliation agreement concluded between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza two weeks ago was a necessary condition for moving on from the past. The agreement brings our main political players to the same side, namely to the side of a historic agreement with Israel. The terms of agreement includes recognition of the 1967 borders. Hamas's political leaders, moreover, are willing to back the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which is the clearest sign I know that their readiness to sign off on the 1967 border is not a mere tactical move but reflects deeper strategic calculations.
The new technocratic government that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will form over the coming weeks will abide by all the terms of the Oslo Accords and the Middle East Quartet. It will be as well a government willing to use the Arab peace initiative as a framework for a negotiated peace agreement that, once signed, will offer the Israelis full diplomatic and commercial relations with fifty-seven Arab and Islamic states.
The real question is how the Netanyahu government will respond. Will it be strong and united enough to conclude what Arafat called the "peace of the brave"? Will it lower its walls and permit the Israeli people to get to know our aspirations, or will it keep in place its policies of separation that contribute to suspicion and fear? Will it open itself to our region, or will it continue the relentless expansion of settlements and population control that will lead to an apartheid regime?
Munib al Masri is a co-founder and chairman of the Palestine Development and Investment Company (Padico), co-founder and honorary chairman of the Welfare Association, founder and chairman of Edgo Group, and chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce in Palestine. He is a trustee of Al-Quds University, trustee emeritus of the American University of Beirut, and support numerous schools and universities. He is dedicated to promoting social welfare, education and development in Palestine, and advancing the cause of peace.
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