Saturday, November 11, 2006

[ePalestine] San Diego Union-Tribune: A simple road to Middle East peace (by Zahi Khouri)

A simple road to Middle East peace 

By Zahi Khouri
November 10, 2006 

More than two decades ago, I had the honor to speak about Palestinian/Israeli peace on a panel with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Although much has changed in the region since then, I could give nearly the same talk today. The requirements for peace and the benefits to be gained remain the same. 

The need for American leadership in the pursuit of peace has only increased. In his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday, President Bush should use his influence to ensure that we do not go another two decades without it. 

While peace has remained elusive, the solution is quite simple. Two peoples live in the same land. Some 5 million Jewish Israelis enjoy the full range of rights accorded to citizens of any democracy. And roughly 5 million Christian and Muslim Palestinians live either as second- class citizens in Israel, or in the Occupied Territories where they enjoy virtually no rights – where every aspect of their lives is controlled by a foreign army and their land and resources are systematically taken for the use of Jewish settlers. 

This inequality is untenable. Palestinians must either be granted the same rights as Jewish Israelis or must be freed from foreign rule and left to govern their own affairs.  

In 1993, the United States brokered the Oslo Peace Accords. They were supposed to have ended Israel's military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem along with the removal of Israeli settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. 

The accords offered hope. Many Palestinian Americans returned to Palestine to invest in businesses. I did that in 1996, when I launched the Coca-Cola franchise there. I also formed, with European and Israeli businesspeople, the Palestine International Business Forum. We hoped to bolster this new political agreement with economic cooperation that could benefit both Palestinians and Israelis. 

New economic opportunities could turn Palestinian despair into hope. We had visions of tourists streaming into the Palestinian city of Bethlehem to see where Christ was born. We hoped Gaza could one day become another Mediterranean vacation destination, welcoming Arabs, Israelis and others alike. 

Instead, Israel doubled the number of settlers living on Palestinian land during the Oslo years. And settlements are still expanding. Israel's apartheid wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, continues to be built on confiscated Palestinian land. It solidifies Israel's control of vital parts of the West Bank including many of the most valuable aquifers, and incorporates nearly 87 percent of Israel's settler population. 

Thousands of Palestinians are trapped between the wall and the state of Israel, separated from their jobs, schools and places of worship. They must obtain permits simply to remain in their homes while Jews from anywhere in the world may immigrate at will and live in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

Olmert is intent on pursuing this unilateral path of destruction. He seems not to have learned the lesson of Lebanon: Military aggression and unilateralism do not lead to peace. He remains determined to expand settlements and continue construction of the wall. His newest colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, advocates various forms of “transfer” of the Palestinians. 

We have seen the results of unilateralism. Israel unilaterally “withdrew” its settlers and soldiers from Gaza more than a year ago. Yet Israel still rules the lives of Palestinians there. It continues to control Gaza's borders, airspace and coastline, determining everything that gets in or out. Its stranglehold on Gaza led United Nations Envoy John Dugard to say, “Gaza is a prison and Israel seems to have thrown away the key.” 

Today, Gaza suffers more than 45 percent unemployment, and two-thirds of its 1.5 million residents live below the poverty line with less than $2 per day. If the fate of Gaza is any indication of what lies in store for the West Bank, we are destined for decades more of conflict. 

America alone has the influence to push for a peace accord that would allow both Palestinians and Israelis to live normal lives and to thrive in harmony with each other. American policy can no longer condone Israeli actions that betray American values. Supporting freedom and equal rights for the Palestinians would benefit us all – Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. President Bush has an opportunity in his meeting with Olmert to hasten a peaceful solution that would end the suffering on all sides. 

Let us hope he does not squander it. 

- Khouri is CEO of the Palestinian National Beverage Co., the West Bank and Gaza's Coca- Cola franchise. He is chairman of the Palestine International Business Forum and chairs the largest Palestinian nongovernment agency, the NGO Development Center, in association with the World Bank. 

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