Image Credit: Dana A.Shams/©Gulf News

There is no cause dearer to my heart than that of the Palestinians and it saddens me that international efforts towards a Palestinian state are on the backburner. Since the 1980s when I got together with Emirati friends to form associations committed to supporting the Palestinians, their right of return is less viable now than it was then. Unfortunately, the idea of a Palestinian state is at the point of being shelved as a mythical Shangri-La unless we take advantage of space in a closing window.

This tragic state of affairs is primarily due to Israel's colony expansion and theft of Palestinian land in occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank. The international community is guilty by default. Most UN member countries affirm their backing for a Palestinian state, yet won't hold Israel's feet to the fire. However, the blame game gets us nowhere. Each side has its own concerns and gripes set in stone. So let's put aside rights and wrongs and get real.

There is one point on which everyone with an ounce of compassion can agree. Palestinians, whether on the West Bank or Gaza or in the Diaspora, are condemned to lives we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies. Arab governments can do little to help Palestinians under occupation. But there is nothing to prevent them from improving the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in squalid camps within their own borders. A visit to one of those camps in Lebanon and elsewhere is a painful experience. As an Arab, I feel ashamed that they've been abandoned to such needless misery. In most of their host countries, they remain stateless and jobless, deprived of the right to own land or open businesses — and forced to put up with poor educational and health care facilities. Why?

Aren't they human beings with bodies, minds and souls? They're innocent victims. Most were born in one of those ramshackle shantytowns. Babies make their first cries while their parents' joy is tempered with the knowledge that their offspring's future is bleak. Enough blinding our eyes! Enough using those poor people as poster-children for a political cause! It is incumbent on all Arab states to agree on a strategy and pool their resources for its implementation.

Every Palestinian refugee should be offered a home in an Arab country of their choosing and afforded equal rights with citizens. They should be offered education and training to gain skills that can benefit both their families and their newly-adopted homelands. That doesn't mean they won't always consider Palestine as their motherland.

A less ideological approach should also be taken with respect to Israel. Like it or not, it's clear that nuclear-armed Israel under the patronage of the US is here to stay. So rather than incessantly battle over this sacred soil, Israelis and Arabs must find a way to peacefully coexist.

We should ignore those who care little about the Palestinian people, yet use their cause to further their own interests whether Arabs, Iranians or westerners. Palestine should be cherished, not treated as a commodity to be traded inch-by-inch or turned into a PR tool to give credibility to liars and manipulators. It's time we called out those who've been ruthlessly playing on our emotions.

Let's also dispense with labels such as "Little Satan" or "enemy Zionist state" designed to incite. We have far more dangerous foes than Israel, disguised as friends. Insult only keeps the flame of enmity burning. It's time to begin negotiations with Israel in a spirit of goodwill.

Direct negotiations

Plan A, embodied in the Camp David Accords, has been an abject failure. Let's admit that and move to Plan B, which I believe should be based on the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during a 2002 Arab League summit. However, due to changing circumstances, I would suggest the following stipulations:

n Palestinian/Israeli negotiations brokered by the US have been fruitless. Instead, a committee should be appointed made up of respected Palestinians and representatives of GCC states. Such a committee should be empowered to negotiate directly with the Israeli government without third parties.

n Talks should be without preconditions with one exception. Israeli colony expansion should come to a halt before their creep precludes any possibility of two states living side-by-side because Palestinians will never sign up to one that's hardly bigger than a postage stamp.

If an independent Palestinian state is no longer practical in light of realities on the ground, the Palestinians should be offered the choice to pursue either a one-state solution or an autonomous region within an Israeli/Palestinian federation.

Whatever gives Palestinians a life, the kind most of us take for granted, Arabs should bless. Likewise, Israelis should conclude that isolation and militarisation won't keep them as safe as an olive branch extended to the Palestinians and Arabs.

Ultimately everyone involved in this conflict must make a choice: Are they prepared to perpetuate pain and suffering indefinitely by dredging up the past and pointing fingers — or are they open to fresh ideas and new solutions? The choice is simple. For people like me who care, there's no contest.


Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.