Friday, November 20, 2009

Let's share power, says moderate Arab

AS the shock departure of Mahmoud Abbas sinks in for Palestinians, Ahmad Aweidah is rising fast in the new generation of leaders.

Mr Aweidah, 39, insists he is not interested in politics, though he's rarely shy about entering the major debates. He argues that Mr Abbas's successor be Nasser al-Qudwa, nephew of the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat, rather than the contender who polls highest among Palestinians, the jailed Marwan Bargouti.

As head of the Palestine Securities Exchange - responsible for $US7 billion ($7.6bn) in deposits and $US2bn in loans - Mr Aweidah refuses to join a political party and abhors Hamas's militant outlook.

He says Arafat's major achievement was to give the Palestinians independence from countries such as Iran and Syria. He voted last election for Mr Abbas.

On all these measures, he is a moderate, which is why it is ominous that someone like Mr Aweidah reflects a growing view among the Palestinian elite that the pursuit of a two-state solution is over. "In terms of one state, I think we should go with the Martin Luther King call of one man one vote," he said.

It would be a federal system under which the Israel Defence Forces would retain responsibility for defence.

"Under one state, Jews and Arabs would share power at a local level for things like education and health, while things like water would be decided at a national level," he said.

"The Jews would have their own canton and the Arabs would have their own canton. It would be a federal structure. The Palestinian canton would not be responsible for the defence of the country. I am happy for the Jewish canton to remain in charge of defence through the IDF. Not a single Palestinian would serve in the IDF. Jerusalem would be everybody's. Jews would be able to live in Hebron not as settlers but as full citizens.

"The Irish and the English resolved their conflict. The English and the Scots. There have been many other conflicts that have seemed as intractable as this one. It's better than continued conflict, is it not?"

In two recent interviews - one with foreign journalists and one with The Weekend Australian - Mr Aweidah argued that the possibility of a Palestinian state passed with the growth of Jewish settlements.

Palestinian politician Mustafa Bargouti said this week that international pressure had encouraged Palestinians to seek a two-state solution - an independent Palestine alongside Israel - but that this was no longer realistic.

Mr Aweidah agreed: "The two-state solution is no longer viable," he said.

"I think the only solution now is one state where the Palestinians are the majority and the Jews are a protected minority, just like the whites are now in South Africa.

"Time and demographics are on our side. In 15 years' time, Palestinians will be the majority."

Mr Aweidah claims the Palestinians have a birth rate of 4.3 per cent. As with everything in this conflict, this is disputed. Israeli analyst Yoram Ettinger described it as "a fairytale".

"We have come up with documented data, mostly Palestinian material, which determines that the trend is exactly the opposite," Mr Ettinger, head of research group Second Thought, told The Weekend Australian.

He found the number of Arabs in Judea and Samaria had been inflated by 66 per cent, and the number of Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza had been overestimated by 43 per cent.

"The demographic tailwind is Jewish - the Arab birth rate is coming down in a free dive," he said. However, prominent Israelis such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni continue to sound the demographic alarm for the Jewish population.

As Washington's push to resume peace talks sinks, Palestinians more frequently are speaking about a unitary state. "What have we got from 15 years of negotiating since Oslo?" Mr Aweidah said. "Today we're sitting behind a wall with 500,000 Jewish settlers. So what will we get from another 15 years of negotiations - one million settlers? The Jews say `never again' about the Shoah. We say `never again' about losing more years negotiating for nothing."

Asked of Israelis who would resist his vision out of fear for the end of the Jewish state, he said: "But it would be the birth of the Jewish canton. Don't worry, we will be good to them. They will be treated as a protected minority. We are not interested in oppressing them. Historically, we don't have a problem with Jews.

Anti-semitism is not an Arab or Muslim thing, it's primarily been a Christian thing." Mr Aweidah says his views are typical today.

The question is, if the moderates are speaking like this in public, how are the hardliners speaking in private?

The Australian

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