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Thursday , October 29 2020

Peace & cooperation – a new path for Israelis, Emiratis

Khalaf Al Habtoor, Founding Chairman of Al Habtoor Group (AHG)

The announcement of a peace deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, brokered by US President Donald Trump, was a surprise to many but for me it is the natural progression of greater understanding between the two countries that has been developed largely because of shared economic aspirations and the emerging threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Other regional nations will follow when they are able to take the temperature of the more conservative elements within their populations I suspect. I am proud of the UAE’s leadership for shining a light on a new road ahead and I congratulate President Trump for making this happen.

I strongly believe goodwill and mutual cooperation will benefit both peoples paving the way for economic, trade, technological, scientific and agricultural exchanges, security and energy cooperation as well as a greater cultural understanding needed to smash outdated stereotypes that have kept us children of the Prophet Abraham on the opposite side of a fence for so long.

While I have actively supported justice for the Palestinians in the form of a two-state or one-state solution throughout most of my life, in recent years I have concluded that prolonging the enmity between Israel and most of the Arab world, is an exercise in futility serving no one, least of all the Palestinian people. I have long encouraged any action that could result in peace between Israelis and Palestinians and this deal is bound to create an atmosphere conducive to respectful negotiations.

In 2017, as a response to President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ which did turn out to a damp squib due to its being heavily Israel-centric worsened by the Palestinians’ refusal to participate in discussions, I wrote a column titled “A window has opened for Middle East Peace. Let’s grab the chance!”

I explained that whereas I once an idealist, I have come to terms with the fact that unrealistic dreams are no use to a people yearning for a place where they can live peacefully and prosper. I stressed that violence has only encouraged the nuclear-armed, militarized occupying power to dig in its heels and I urged both sides to come up with new courageous innovative strategies.

My country the United Arab Emirates has done just that. It is a trendsetter that never ceases to amaze in every field. Until now, this new accord has been welcomed by Egypt, Jordan, Sultanate of Oman, Bahrain, the UK, Germany, France and the United Nations but has been denounced by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and various Palestinian spokespersons in spite of the fact that it is conditional upon the Israeli government’s pledge to keep Prime Minister Netanyahu’s annexation of the West Bank on hold.

While it is the case that Mr Netanyahu is under fire from right-wing settlers who are eager to see the annexation of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley he has tried to placate them by stating the plan had not been binned.  He further confirmed that he would not proceed without a green light from the White House. With the international community solidly against the idea, it is doubtful he will get a nod from President Trump whose Democratic rival Joe Biden, a great friend to Israel,  has publicly stated “Annexation would be a body blow to the cause of peace, which is why I opposed it now and would oppose it as president”.

In my view the more Arab states allied to Israel will not only undermine Israel’s old argument that it is isolated surrounded by millions of hostile Arabs but it will also strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s arm, simply because the Jewish State will feel more secure and the more friends in the neighbourhood it has, the more it will have to lose by being intransigent.

We in our part of the world have all had our fair share of mutual hatreds and wars spanning more than 70 years and what have we gained? Nothing other than insecurity, mistrust and trillion-dollar war machines, most rusting in warehouses.

The late Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat who knew that war with Israel joined at America’s hip was a mug’s game and so he courageously offered an olive branch to then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir which was graciously accepted.

His impromptu visit to Jerusalem was widely celebrated by Israelis. He was invited to deliver a speech in the Knesset when he outlined his ideas for a comprehensive peace. Unfortunately, he was shunned by the entire Arab World, branded a traitor by the Palestinians and was shot dead by a radical group while watching a military procession.

Yet his reach-out to the enemy was the soil in which the return of all Israeli-occupied Egyptian lands was cultivated and, most crucially it marked the end of conflicts. Then, all Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1967 were up for discussion. The longer this antipathy between Israelis and Palestinians has prevailed, the more the land once earmarked for a Palestinian state has shrunk.

My heart does go out to the Palestinian people whose suffering is unending but at the same time their leaderships need to take note of the harsh reality. The old ways have failed dismally. I would therefore urge my Palestinian brothers and sisters to wait and see what benefits this new deal can bring to them before rushing to emotional knee-jerk judgments.

In all honesty, if there is one Arab state that could win big time if only it was able to make peace with Israel and that is Lebanon. There would be no more border skirmishes, wars and bloodshed and Lebanon would no longer require heavily armed militias to defend it from its neighbours.

Sadly, it goes without saying why this remains a pipedream at least for now. Given their current reality I am almost certain that if the Lebanese people were polled on this topic, the majority would opt for peace. The economic rewards alone would be enormous.

Finally, I take this opportunity to salute all those involved in cementing a new and exciting new partnership between Israelis and Emiratis which I pray will be fruitful not only for the two newly allied countries but also for our troubled region.

Is it too much of a stretch to imagine a Middle East at peace with open skies and borders, each country sharing ideas and expertise instead of being written off as the planet’s eternal hotspot where violence reigns? If the Israeli-Emirati pact succeeds in inspiring new generations of leaders, then all is possible. Let us put our hatreds behind us and be the first to work towards that goal.

By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

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