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October 1, 2010
Fathi El-Shihibi

By Professor Fathi El-Shihibi

Even though I am usually in the habit of seeking facts before reaching any conclusions however after witnessing yet another round of Arab-Israeli face to face negotiations that President Barak Obama, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu along with President Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas, ushered in with so much fanfare unfortunately slides into apathy and lingers between political tension and have hearted optimism, all I could think about was that what peacemaking truly needs are the audacity of real hope and the courage to transcend things that already are and dream of things that never were and finding ways to get there .

These paraphrased words from George Bernard Shaw's play "Back to Methuselah" that the late President John F. Kenny reiterated in his speech to the Irish Parliament in June 28th 1963, and the words that the current President Barak Obama had chosen for the title of his inspirational book, are words that the Palestinian and Israeli leadership and negotiators truly need to internalize and live by but most importantly act upon if they are truly serious about achieving an enduring and lasting peace for this generation as well as future generations. I don't know whether it is because of my growing older and wiser yet more skeptical and complacent, my reaction to the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under the auspicious of the United States was somewhere in between "Oh well better luck next time", if there ever going to be a more opportune time as President Obama seemed to imply in his latest speech at the United Nations, and "there has to be a better way to do this right once and for all".

In between getting my hopes up for a viable solution to the conflict and becoming disillusioned every time smiles turn into sneers and the specter of war God forbid, is once again unmasked, I have been busying myself honing my political skills for the sake of making since of this fifty two years stretch of conflict and conciliation to reach a solution or solutions that would be accepted by both sides.

This long span of time has also been interspersed by four major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 that cost countless lives on both sides and billions in military hardware and armaments. This time I have decided to do this on my own and trust my diplomatic acumen and political savvy enough to try to unravel this seemingly complicated situation.

After a time of serious thinking it finally dawned on me. What this process needs is essentially two simultaneous and complementary approaches. The first requires leaps of faith over the many hurdles standing in the way of a lasting and enduring peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The second involves discarding all other schemes to achieve peaceful settlement that had proven once again to be irreconcilable with contemporary realities and irreversible circumstances on the ground. These realities include the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the changed status of Jerusalem since the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and beyond and the threats by Hamas (Islamic Zeal) that is in control of the Gaza Strip to undermine any peace deals between Israel and the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. If you don't know what I mean by my first proposition to jump start the peace process by taking giant leaps of faith rather than the usual baby steps and tiptoeing around the many urgent issues I am actually getting to that.

The giant leaps I have in mind are similar to those undertaken by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin not to mention the late Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Menachem Began as well as The late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, the late King Husayn of Jordan and the late King Hasan of Morocco.

The Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took a giant yet risky leap when he decided to bypass all the unnecessary details of peace making and opted instead to go directly to Israel, deliver a speech before the Israeli Knesset thereby breaking every taboo that kept his predecessor and many other Arab leaders shackled for years.

Another similar leap was the one taken by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat when he overcame the taboo of face to face negotiations with the Israelis and therefore paved the way for the Oslo Accords and the signing of a peace treaty between the Palestinians and the Israelis on the front lawn of the White house during the Clinton Administration. While King Husayn saw the wisdom of signing a peace treaty with Israel despite the looming threat of a backlash against him and his government, King Hasan of Morocco was the architect behind the direct negotiations between the two adversaries. Daring ventures and leaps of faith such as these could save both sides the agony of haggling over minor issues and spare them countless years of poring over unnecessary details.

The assassination of President Sadat precisely because of his audacious approach was truly a tragedy that befell a man who had the vision and the courage to look beyond the immediate circumstances including at the time an existing state of war between Egypt and Israel and instead reached out to a future that others could not imagine let alone contemplate or attempt to realize. When leaders do things that are similar to what Sadat did they are not only rising above their immediate circumstances and constraints but instead reach out to reconcile vision with reality sometimes at the expense of their own safety and well being. This was also the case with the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who also took a leap of faith when he decided to conduct direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Rabin like Sadat was a military man who along with the Egyptian President had the courage to, as the bible says "beaten their swords into plowshares" and transformed themselves from warriors to peace makers. Sadly Rabin was also assassinated by forces similar to those that issued a fatwa or religious decree which condemned Sadat to death and that aim to continue along a path of violent confrontations.

The lingering threat of violence directed at those who truly had their peoples' well being at heart and the sincerest desires to overcome hatred and violence is truly in and for itself a tragedy plaguing humanity since times immemorial. This tragic reality continues to hang over the heads of those leaders who dare challenge the status quo and risk exposure to violent backlash or worse violent retaliation.

The second approach that I propose to hopefully overcome the many hurdles and a challenges standing in the way of a permanent peace deal is one that could be described as a pyramidal method or approach to problem solving. If we think of the Arab-Israeli problems as a pyramid naturally we would think that the immediate or urgent problems form the top of the pyramid and the other less urgent problems form the middle and the base of the pyramid.

The top problems form a first category and the rest form a second category. The problems or issues in category one are naturally more urgent and therefore have to be tackled first and they include:

1- Future status of Jerusalem

2- Israel's withdrawal to pre-1967 boarders

3- Creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip

4- Repatriation of Palestinian refugees

5- Israel's security and normalization of relations

6- Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state

Once these issues are settled all other issues in the sub-categories ranging from a gradual normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states to economic and cultural cooperation and from sharing water resources to whether the Jews or the Palestinians were the first to come up with the recipe for humus.

I truly think that starting from the top and resolving these paramount issues could finally free the Palestinian and Israeli hands to tackle other minor issues since both people could finally be assured in the permanency of a stable and secure environment. Why continuing the old trends of attempting to unravel layers of minor issues such as whether the Palestinian Police should carry light arms or no arms at all instead of creating a permanent security arrangement at the top then negotiate the matter of the Palestinian police's side arms later.

I am almost certain that while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are directed by the their superiors to seek mutual solutions to such minor issues their eyes are focused on the bigger and naturally more sophisticated matters a head. When those involved in peacemaking and tackling major obstacles to permanent peace become deadlocked or find themselves hemmed in by immediate demands and pressures they could always find inspiration and guidance in their holy scriptures whether they are Christian, Jewish or Muslim that urge them to pursue peace no matter how steep are the sacrifices. While the Muslim holy Quran promotes peace by advising Prophet Muhammad that, "If the enemy inclines towards peace, do thou incline towards peace also, and trust in Allah (God)" (Quran ch. 8:61), and the Bible proclaims, "Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Mathew ch. 5:9), in the Psalms of David God commands him to, "Depart from evil, and do good; Seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms ch. 34:14).

Fathi El-Shihibi

Professor of Islam and Arab culture

Northeastern University

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