Just Give Us Our Freedom

Israel's leaders must drop their narratives of fear and rejection, and embrace President Abbas and his government as true partners for peace.

“Don’t delude yourselves,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said recently to three Israeli members of our group, Breaking the Impasse: “We don’t have a partner on the Palestinian side for a two-state solution.” Hearing this brought to mind a conversation I had 30 years ago with Yitzhak Rabin. It was during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and in Tel Aviv hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets protesting a war designed to drive Yasser Arafat and the PLO out of Beirut and which directly or indirectly led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Lebanese and Palestinians.

It was early 1983. I told Rabin over the phone that if he wanted an end to the wars between our peoples, he would have to sit down and negotiate with Arafat and the PLO. “No way,” he declared. “I will never sit down with him.” For Rabin at that time, neither Arafat nor the PLO would ever be partners for peace. I told him he was wrong. Ten years later, when Arafat introduced me in person to Prime Minister Rabin during a conference in Casablanca, Morocco after the signing of the Oslo Accords in the White House Rose Garden, Rabin smiled wryly and said to me in a low voice, “Just don’t say I told you so.”

Many other Israeli leaders and citizens have gone through the same process of change, realizing in the end that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have no choice but to come to a fair compromise that will allow our peoples to share a peaceful, prosperous future. I have no doubt that the present Israeli government will likewise come to see in our president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his government reliable partners in peace.

My optimism is based on the simple fact that Abu Mazen, like Arafat before him, has already made the most painful decision any national leader can be asked to make by stating unambiguously his willingness to accept 22 percent of historic Palestine as the price of peace. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership has embraced the Arab Peace Initiative because it regards the two-state solution to be the beginning of a new, open, collaborative relationship with Israel that will bring incalculable benefits to our peoples and the region.

There are, of course, some Israelis who will always find reasons to deny that Palestinians can be their partners - because they claim our territory for the unending expansion of Jewish settlements. Ya’alon, in addition, argues that an independent Palestinian state could become a staging ground for radical Islamists to attack Israel. Even if Abu Mazen is sincere in his desire for peace, Ya’alon seems to think, there is no guarantee that his successors will not turn Palestine into a launchpad for attacks aimed at Israel.

Using scenarios of fear to continue caging Palestinians into bantustans will only deepen the animosity between our peoples and guarantee there will be no end to fear, conflict and death on both sides. It would be facile to deny the dangers inherent in solving a conflict as old and complex as ours. But as a founder of Breaking the Impasse, a group of Palestinian and Israeli businesspeople  who represent more than 30 percent of the gross domestic product of both countries, I can say unequivocally that the only way for Israelis to ensure a prosperous future for themselves is to help Palestinians build an open, free state of their own, and this starts with a political, and not economic, resolution of two states based on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

And this is no dream. For nearly 60 years I have worked in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and have watched post-colonial nations lift themselves out of poverty and political immaturity. We all know the essential ingredients in building a functioning state. A state must control its own borders. A state must also have the rule of law and must give free space for industry and civil society to prosper.

When Oslo began there were 50,000 phone lines in the West Bank and Gaza. In the past 20 years Palestinian telecommunications companies have grown the market to reach 500,000 fixed lines, 3.5 million mobile subscribers and broad Internet coverage. We Palestinians will continue building our country, and we are extending our hands in partnership to our future neighbors. Israel has a choice: instead of being boycotted and shunned, it can instead be welcomed as a friend, neighbor, visitor and trading partner from Marrakesh to Jakarta. Just give us our freedom.

I am confident that Ya’alon will look into the future and conclude that it is much better to prevent disaster through cooperation than to ensure disaster through fear and continued occupation. I truly believe that in 2014 he and the other members of the Israeli government will shake the hand of President Mahmoud Abbas, and once he does I promise not to say, “I told you so.”

The writer is a prominent Palestinian businessman who supports numerous Palestinian education and welfare initiatives and is dedicated to advancing the cause of peace.