JASON GREENBLATT, BISHARA A. BAHBAH
Perhaps President Reuven Rivlin expressed it properly when he called PA President Mahmoud Abbas and declared that “[t]he world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people.”
COGAT coordinates WHO delivery of coronavirus detection kits and protective masks to Palestinian Authority / (photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON’S OFFICE)
Israelis and Palestinians share a trench in their fight against a common enemy – the spread of the coronavirus. Other than a few ugly exceptions, each society understands that this deadly, silent enemy must be confronted together, without politics or propaganda.
The pandemic reminds Palestinians and Israelis how intertwined their fate is. The border between Israel and what some call the West Bank and others call Judea and Samaria is porous, with tens of thousands of people crossing daily from one side to the other. The dangers posed to Israelis are the same dangers posed to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. If they are not vigilant, and if they do not fight this virus diligently together, they will both suffer.
The response to the pandemic by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority is an indication that Israelis and Palestinians are capable of overcoming some of the seemingly insurmountable impasses that have characterized their relationship over the past decades. We are mindful that much of this cooperation is due to the recognition that their collective health, economic well-being and security could be undermined without such cooperation. Nevertheless, this cooperation is a good start and should not be taken lightly or ignored.
Perhaps President Reuven Rivlin expressed it properly when he called PA President Mahmoud Abbas and declared that “[t]he world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people or where they live” and when he emphasized that “cooperation between us is vital to ensure the health of both Israelis and Palestinians.” In return, Abbas offered his full cooperation in the fight against this deadly disease.
The Palestinian taboo of dealing with Israelis was lifted (other than with some exceptions from a few Palestinian so-called leaders and influencers) and Palestinian and Israeli officials coordinated activities to confront the pandemic. Both sides have been working productively side by side. According to Yotam Shefer, the head of the international department of Israel’s Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, coordination between Israel and the Palestinians is “very tight and very strong.”
Among other things, Israel has provided training to Palestinian healthcare professionals in Israeli hospitals and has sponsored joint workshops. Israeli labs have analyzed Palestinian COVID-19 diagnostic tests, doctors on both sides have exchanged and analyzed information, thousands of COVID-19 testing kits were given to the Palestinian health ministry and protective gear was given to Palestinian healthcare workers and security personnel. In a rare, but important move, Israel also permitted the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza from the PA, Israel and other international donors and allowed the movement of critical personnel.
Normally, as many as 145,000 West Bank Palestinians work in Israel daily. Their income is vital to the Palestinian West Bank economy. Palestinian workers are provided with appropriate housing and proper sanitary conditions while working in Israel. In an unprecedented move, the Israeli government has allowed 45,000 Palestinian workers to work and sleep in Israel for at least one or two months during this crisis. These workers are generally not allowed to go back and forth to minimize the possibility of transmitting the virus. The movement of laborers is coordinated by both the Israeli and Palestinian governments to reduce the transfer of the virus from one area to the other.
The pandemic highlights how interconnected the Israeli and Palestinian economies are. This crisis validates the theory that it is more realistic and economical for Israel to use Palestinian labor than to import labor from the Far East or Eastern Europe. Ultimately, it would be beneficial for Palestinians to work with Israel in the hi-tech sector as well. Instead of significant portions of the Israeli hi-tech sector being offshored to parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere, Palestinians can be trained up to work in the Israeli tech scene and continue to grow the Palestinian nascent hi-tech sector.
Out of the COVID-19 pandemic springs the hope that Palestinians and Israelis can cooperate and work together and set aside politics as usual, at least for the duration of this crisis, and hopefully well beyond it. Thus far, other than with some notable exceptions, both sides have shown that with goodwill and honorable intentions, they can indeed work together. Whether this newfound cooperation leads to good-faith negotiations of a comprehensive peace agreement remains to be seen. We are not suggesting that this cooperation is the key to resolve the significant issues that must be resolved to achieve a peace agreement that works for both sides. No one can predict what will happen when life returns to whatever the new normal will be when the immediate danger of the pandemic passes, or what happens if (most would say when) there is a recurrence of some sort. But the two societies have been separate and distrustful of one another for far too long. Breaking this cycle can only help in any peace effort.
It is our hope that the lessons learned from this pandemic and the spirit of respect and cooperation will continue, so that movement toward a peace agreement can be built on similar goodwill, respect and cooperation. It is time for a new Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. It is time for a new future for Israelis and Palestinians and the region around them.
God bless all of humanity.
Jason D. Greenblatt is a former assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations in US President Donald Trump’s administration. He is now a partner at OurCrowd, the world’s largest equity crowdfunding platform. Follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattJD.
Bishara A. Bahbah is a former member of the Palestinian delegation to the multilateral peace talks. He taught at Harvard University and was associate director of its Middle East Institute.