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Will peace ever come to the Promised Land?

1993 dream of turning Gaza Strip into a 'Singapore of the Middle East' remains just a dream

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US President Donald Trump's move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the American Embassy there has infuriated Palestinians.

Washington

IT was a time when everything seemed to be possible. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and communism was relegated to the ash bin of history, the nations of Eastern Europe were transformed into democracies and capitalism was introduced in China.

And so commenced the Age of Globalisation, raising hopes of expansion of political and economic freedom worldwide, creating the foundations of peace and prosperity under which national, ethnic, tribal and religious conflicts would finally end, to be replaced by an interconnected global system that provides for the free flow of products, peoples and ideas.

As a clear indication that, indeed, the sky seemed to be the limit, South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation came to an end in the early 1990s, bringing about the formation of a democratic government in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

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So when Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland started negotiating an end to their long and bloody conflict, some wondered whether the impossible would also happen in another part of the world - in the Middle East - and Jews and Arabs would also be able to resolve their century-old dispute in the Holy Land, aka Israel (Hebrew) and Palestine (Arabic).

Trying not to disappoint an entire world hoping to see peace coming to the Middle East, representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) entered into secret talks in Oslo, Norway, that led to an accord signed in Washington, DC, in 1993.

In exchange for recognising the State of Israel, a Palestinian governing body, the Palestinian Authority (PA), was tasked with limited self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which remained under Israeli military control. The borders of Israel and Palestine, Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem and other central issues had to be negotiated between the two sides, setting the stage for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

There was a sense of optimism that the so-called Oslo Process would give birth to a New Middle East, a term coined by Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, who envisioned young Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs working together to build their economies, and with other Middle Eastern countries creating a regional version of the European Union (EU).

Or as the title of columnist Tom Friedman's book The Lexus and the Olive Tree suggested, the nationalist and religious roots (the Olive Tree) of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be overridden by the common interests Jews and Arabs have in joining a booming global economy and enjoying its rewards in the form of peace and prosperity.

So when the ageing PLO leader Yasser Arafat returned to Palestine from his exile and visited Gaza, he embraced the zeitgeist of the 1990s. He pledged to transform the Gaza Strip, that poverty stricken and densely populated area on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, into the "Singapore of the Middle East", a commercial centre that would attract trade and investment.

Today, 25 years after the signing of the Oslo Accord on the South Lawn of the White House, with unemployment at close to 60 per cent, rising prices, food insecurity, and power outages of 16 hours a day, the Gaza Strip is no Singapore.

Ruled since 2007 by the radical Islamist Hamas movement that adheres to religious fundamentalist principles and remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the territory is fenced off and blockaded by Israel. And its population has become a victim of the never-ending cycles of violence, involving Palestinian terrorist attacks and massive Israeli retaliations, including the 2014 war during which parts of Gaza were destroyed and large number of civilians were killed and injured.

From that perspective, the latest clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israel's military are just another bloody chapter in the war between Hamas and Israel. It started with hundreds of Palestinians attempting to breach the fence dividing the Gaza Strip, burning tyres, using flaming kites and throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers who fired back live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets, leaving dozens dead and injured.

The scenes of carnage in the Gaza Strip stand in dramatic contrast to the vision of peace and prosperity drawn up in 1993 by the Israeli and Palestinian architects of the Oslo process and their international supporters. They had hoped that a quarter of a century later, an independent Palestine would co-exist side-by-side with a secure Israel, and that the cooperation between the two states would become part of that New Middle East that Mr Peres had imagined.

But the Oslo process proved dead on arrival. The two sides failed to reach an agreement on key issues, including the status of Jerusalem, during the Camp David Summit that former US President Bill Clinton convened in 2000. That was followed by the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising or Intifada and resulted in many Arab and Jewish casualties.

Former American presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama tried but failed to revive the peace process and negotiate a deal between Israel and the subsequent more moderate and secular Palestinian faction led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. PA took control of parts of the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip, which Israel relinquished, remained under the rule of Hamas that has refused to recognise the Jewish state.

To use Friedman's metaphors, it seems that the Lexus has won and the Olive Tree has lost, not only in Israel-Palestine but in the entire Old Middle East, dominated today by ethnic and sectarian conflicts and the rising power of religious extremism and the spectre of a Cold War between Iran, the Shi'ite powerhouse, and the Arab-Sunni states.

At the same time, the right-wing government that now rules Israel has been less committed to the idea of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continues to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

And this Israeli government now enjoys the strong backing of US President Donald Trump, who unlike his predecessor has refrained from criticising Israeli policies, and who in a move that infuriated the Palestinians, decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to relocate the American Embassy there.

Indeed, on the same day when thousands of Palestinians were clashing with Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - joined by President Trump's Jewish daughter and son-in-law and 800 other Israeli and American officials - were inaugurating the new Israeli Embassy in Jerusalem, a clear demonstration of the strong ties between Israel and its American ally.

The Trump administration has also been trying to forge a military alliance between Israel and the Arab-Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia as part of a strategy to contain the power of Iran in the Middle East. That in turn means that the Palestinians could not rely anymore on the support of those Arab states who are becoming more friendly towards Israel.

In many respects, Israel - which celebrates this year the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state - has become not only a regional military power but also a major economic and technological player as well as a flourishing democracy.

But without a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, and the continuing military occupation of the West Bank and its Arab population, Israel will be facing long-term threats, including the erosion of its democratic values and the loss of the traditional support it enjoyed in the West, including in the US where its policies towards the Palestinians are facing growing criticism on the political left and among Democrats.

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