With the recent focus on chemical weapons in Syria, the Western-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine have flown mostly under the radar. But the World Bank has brought the economic costs of occupation to the fore, arguing that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian mobility and land and water use subtracted an estimated $3.4bn from the Palestinian Authority’s GDP in 2011.
A major factor in this economic suppression was access to natural resources. The report points out that Israeli settlements, with better access to water sources, can produce thirsty crops like dates and pomegranates, while Palestinians mainly cultivate drought-resistant olives.
In response to the report’s findings, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said that they would be discussed in the negotiations to resume next July. But addressing questions of dates and olives – economic questions – only perpetuates the system of blind, short-term solutions for which these negotiations are notorious. How can questions of trade be resolved before a peaceful relationship has been established?
The methods of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority only reflect the broader failing of our West Asia–North Africa region. Cooperation at the regional level on almost all important issues is sadly absent; even in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, their Arab neighbours are excluded from participation.
Instead, every chance for truly constructive dialogue devolves into trivial minutiae – essentially, into discussions about dates and olives.
The Syrian crisis in international parlance has also been reduced to the one-dimensional story of chemical weapons, while the broader political and humanitarian crisis is being swept under the rug, something that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia protested this month by both refusing to speak at the United Nations and rejecting his country’s appointment to the Security Council.
Indeed, in our region, grander visions of cooperative, intra-independent coexistence are nowhere to be found.
Why should this be? After all, nations in other regions of the world interact with each other positively. A recent article by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov highlighted the myriad Asia Pacific organisations in which Russia participates. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) annually discusses issues of regional interest such as water and food security, health care, energy, and sustainable economic growth – all issues of importance to our region, as well. Lavrov even reports that work is under way to create a Eurasian Economic Union by January 1, 2015 to encourage inter-regional economic cooperation. Russia’s admirable goal, he says, is “equal cooperation of all countries, with no exception.”
While the Asia Pacific region works toward equitable and respectful coordination on issues of general interest, West Asia–North Africa – except for the commendable contribution of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) – lacks regionally-focused institutions. Instead of promoting economic, environmental, humanitarian, and developmental cooperation, we squabble over access to shared resources, greedily claiming whatever we can for our own.
To move forward, we must instead focus on developing a socially cohesive vision for our region’s future. Some argue that most of our region is already thematically united by either nationalist aspirations or Islam. The unfortunate fact is, however, that nationalism and religion are both essentially exclusivist pursuits that will only yield further discord.
A nation can be defined as, to use an oft-quoted phrase, “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.” Although fifty years ago, broader Arab nationalism seemed to many to be the region’s salvation, time has proven otherwise.
The amorphous character of the romantic urge of nationalism makes it difficult to deal with administrative questions on broad lines, and it is these very questions that must be addressed if we as a region are to move forward.
Now, as the crisis in Syria daily worsens, speculation grows that West Asia as we know it may soon disintegrate into smaller, sectarian states in a worrying process of Balkanisation that would appeal to nationalist ambitions by exacerbating our current disparity.
If we are truly to pursue regional cooperation, we must set aside small-minded ambitions and move toward overarching, mutual cooperation based on pluralism, sustainability, and rule of law.