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MENA Unbound: Ten Years after the Arab Spring, Avoiding Another Lost Decade

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Ten years ago, to the day, the Tunisian people revolted against their president. They denounced his regime, his policies, and his corrupt practices and called for jobs, freedom, and dignity. This was the cry of millions of young people frustrated with the arrogance of cronyism, the widening gulf of economic opportunity, and the stifling of unauthorized speech in any form.

Peaceful protests had never before led to a regime change in the region, and soon the tide overwhelmed North Africa and the Middle East. Those early waves of hope—which some labeled the “Arab Spring”—led to the fall of governments in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. But as we now know, the wave crashed into a maelstrom of disillusionment, political opportunism, authoritarianism, violence, and civil war.

A decade after those dramatic events, what happened to dignity and freedom? What happened to economic opportunities? Are the youth of the MENA region better off today than they were a decade ago?

Despite increased aspirations, sometimes more open political systems, and a freer right to dissenting speech—and despite substantial support from the international community—deep changes to economic governance and outcomes failed to materialize in the last decade. With very few exceptions, MENA countries have run up unsustainable public debt and increased their dependence on capital inflows. While some in the region, mainly in the Gulf, have shown improvements in the ease of doing business, overall competitiveness of MENA countries falls short of the region’s potential.

According to a new opinion poll by The Guardian and YouGov, a majority of those surveyed in Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt do not regret the protests; yet, more than half of respondents in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan say their lives are worse than before the uprising. Even in Tunisia—arguably the closest country to a democratic success story—50% say their lives are worse today, while only a little more than a quarter of respondents say their lives are better. And there is diminishing hope: a majority of those surveyed in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia believe their children will face worse futures than before the protests.

That future is far from inevitable. But without a sweeping change in trajectory, there will likely be another lost decade in the MENA region.

Building a New Social Contract

The discontent that impelled momentous shifts a decade ago is possibly even stronger today. The youth of MENA suffer from a clogged horizon and a lack of opportunities. To avoid another lost decade, MENA governments must fix a broken social contract and the distorting and corrupting role of the State in the economy.

By current demographic trends, the MENA region will need to generate 300 million new jobs by 2050. This is a far-reaching challenge, but far from a distant one. There is no time to prepare. The World Bank estimates that MENA countries will need to begin creating 800,000 jobs per month—starting right now—just to keep pace with new workers entering the market.

These millions of new jobs will not be created by governments, nor can they be absorbed by the public sector. The only way to tap into the energy of MENA’s youth is to revitalize economies; open more doors to the private sector; instill transparency, accountability, and governance into the affairs of the State; and have government play its role as a fair regulator.

Unfortunately, challenges abound. Across much of the region, the education sector is still stuck using old curricula and outdated teaching methods. COVID-19 painfully revealed the weaknesses of health systems. Social protection programs are cracking at the seams. The latest World Bank Human Capital Index report found that a child born today in MENA will be a little less than half as productive (57%) as she would be if she benefitted from complete education and full health.

Paradoxically, building human capital is one of the most crucial roles of the State; however, there is a yawning absence of State leadership in many MENA countries. Governments, playing their rightful role, need to make an immense effort to equip their youth to grow and compete in an ever more globalized world. It must be more than a financial investment, because MENA is already spending large portions of its GDP on health and education, with largely unsatisfying outcomes. More rational use of resources and better governance of health and education systems is what the region needs. Opening more opportunities for women and their economic empowerment is another fundamental axis of progress. In MENA, there remains a gender paradox whereby women are far more educated and performing in academic settings than men, but a fraction of them are economically active.

MENA governments must also rethink their approach to social protection, which has been sought through policies that rely on costly, misguided subsidies. For too long, States have chosen the politically easy and economically disastrous path to a flawed social contract, whereby basic goods and services are made available at “protected” prices to buy political allegiances and “social peace”. These policies are no longer viable. Governments cannot keep up with the price-tag, and the region’s people—most notably the youth—are no longer accepting a quid-pro-quo that silences their grievances and stifles their aspirations.

The failure of this outdated and flawed social contract, in very large measure, brought about the unrest across the region 10 years ago. It is now past time to adopt empowering policies that would relieve the State from burdens it can no longer sustain and redirect scarce resources toward bolstering human capital and preparing today’s youth for the jobs of tomorrow.

Government’s Role in the Economy

In a healthy economy, the private sector and entrepreneurship need space to develop. The key role of the government is to be the regulator of the economy. That entails setting clear and predictable rules, instilling market contestability to prevent monopolistic practices, and empowering the justice system to enforce the rule of law. These are the basics for any open market economy and the conditions to attract both foreign and domestic investment.

There is a glimmer of hope with some countries working to bend their arc of development. Morocco stands out: it is on a path to opening the country to the world and investing heavily in modernity, while guarding its macro-economic stability. With most of the world’s focus today on short-term management of the Covid-19 pandemic response, Morocco has been implementing key new reforms that could potentially help transform the future of the country and its people.

Let’s be clear though: macro-economic indicators can be misleading. They can hide harsh social realities and weak governance, as was the case in Tunisia ten years ago. Throughout MENA, wide ranging economic and social reforms and a strong signal of zero tolerance for the sadly still rampant corrupt practices are in order.

Unfortunately, these policies are the exception rather than the rule. Large sectors of MENA’s economies are still mismanaged by state-owned entities that operate well outside of market realities. The region’s current economic landscape imposes a heavy burden on taxpayers and closes the door to far too many private investors.

No one is arguing for the automatic privatization of state-owned enterprises. What MENA governments need to do is open markets to competition, introduce public-private partnerships, and revitalize segments of their economies that have been inefficient or dormant altogether. Governments need to have the political courage and the legitimacy to explain these reforms and adopt social policies to protect anyone left behind.

A Decade Unbound

Ten years after the most significant shift in a century, nothing is resolved in the MENA region. The frustrations that ignited the “Arab Spring” predominate, compounded by more violence, social unrest, and—in many instances—weaker, more corrupt governments. More young people, many with university degrees, dream of a better future elsewhere in the world.

To avoid another lost decade, a loud wakeup call needs to resonate all across MENA – from the “Ocean to the Gulf”. The immediate task is to open the door to private enterprise, win over the resistance to liberalizing economies, and empower youth with opportunities to match their limitless potential. Governments need to enact fair laws, adopt enabling regulations, and enforce them fairly. That will unleash the energy of millions of young people who will choose to create opportunities and wealth at home rather than taking their talent abroad or risking their lives crossing the sea.

Countries in the region need to leave it to the entrepreneurs, the creators, the innovators, and those ready to take high risks for high rewards to transform MENA’s economies. They will create jobs and instill hope in the region’s youth. Give them space and support, follow their lead, and see what a decade unbound will look like across the region.

First appeared in Aljazeera English via World Bank

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The syndrome of neglect: After years of hyperactivity, Erdogan is completely isolated

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At the NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, strategically important issues were discussed, such as the relations of the Alliance’s Member States with China and their attitude towards President Putin’s Russia. The Member States’ positions on these issues did not appear unambiguous and diplomats had to struggle to find the right wording to draft the final communiqué. What was evident, however, was an only apparently marginal fact: the total “physical” as well as political isolation of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.

After being defined by Prime Minister Draghi as a “dictator and autocrat”, the Turkish President also had to endure the harsh reprimands of the US State Department which, at the end of the “eleven-day war” between Israel and Hamas, did not hesitate to condemn – in unusually harsh language – some of his public statements made in the first days of the war when, in order to underline his thoughts towards the Israeli leadership, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “the Jewish Prime Minister”.

The derogatory use of the word “Jewish’ instead of “Israeli” triggered a reaction from President Biden’s Administration. The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was instructed to express “the strong and unequivocal condemnation of the Turkish President’s anti-Semitic comments’, and called on him to refrain from “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence … not least because anti-Semitism is reprehensible and should have no place on the world stage”.

After struggling for years to become a true regional power, President Erdogan’s Turkey is now on the sidelines of the political scene and the Turkish leader’s bewildered expression emerging from the photographs of the NATO Summit of June 14 – which show him physically isolated from the other Heads of State and government – appears as an iconic testimony to the irrelevance to which Turkey has been condemned, owing to the adventurism of its President, after a decade of reckless and counterproductive political and military moves.

As early as in the spring of 2010, in view of showing he was at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause, President Erdogan authorised the establishment of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a naval convoy capable of challenging – under the Turkish flag – the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On May 31, 2020, Israeli commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara ship carrying not only humanitarian aid, but also Hamas militants attempting to enter again the Gaza Strip illegally.

As soon as Israeli soldiers stepped onto the deck of the Turkish ship, they were confronted by Palestinians and crew members armed with axes, knives and iron bars. Ten Palestinians and Turkish sailors died in the ensuing clashes, but the most severe wound was inflicted on Turkish-Israeli relations.

Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Israel – long-standing relations dating back to 1949 when Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, thus also interrupting important economic and military relations that represented for the entire Middle East the example of how it was possible to follow paths of integration and pacification between Muslims and Jews.

Since 2011, with the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, President Erdogan has tried in every way to take a leading role in a flow of events which – rather than exporting liberal democracies in the region – aimed to underline and validate the victory of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and of the most backward and fundamentalist Islam.

While thinking he could easily solve his competition with Assad’ Syria and at the same time dismiss the problem of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish irredentism, President Erdogan intervened heavily in the Syrian civil war by providing military aid and logistical support not only to the militias of the “Syria Liberation Army”, but also to the Salafist formations of Jabhat Al Nusra and even ISIS.

We all know what has happened: after a decade of civil war, Syria is in ruins but Bashar al-Assad is still in power; the rebels are now closed in small pockets of resistance and Russia, which intervened siding with Damascus, thus overturning the outcome of the conflict, is firmly established in the country while Turkey is not only excluded from the promising business of Syria’s reconstruction, but finds itself managing a massive refugee emergency.

In President Erdogan’ sometimes ill-considered quest to make his country take on the role of the leading regional power, his activism led him to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in support of the Azerbaijani Turkmen against the Christian Armenians, with the result that, after the last crisis in the autumn of 2020, Turkey had to step aside to leave Russia the role of interposition and peacekeeping force.

In Libya, too – after sending arms and mercenaries to support al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) – after its resignation last January, the Turkish role became less influential than the Turkish leader’s aspirations.

In 2017, in a vain attempt to send a signal to NATO and US allies, President Erdogan bought S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, worth 2.5 million dollars.

The move did not please the then US President, Donald Trump, who immediately imposed economic and military sanctions on Turkey, thus contributing to the decline of its economy and to its progressive international isolation.

It has recently been reported that, in an attempt to bring Turkey closer to the new Biden Administration, President Erdogan has decided to send back home the Russian technicians who were in charge of S-400 maintenance at the Incirlick base – which is also a NATO base – with the result of infuriating Vladimir Putin who obviously does not like the idea of seeing highly sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Americans.

The end result of all these unhinged moves is that the US sanctions remain in place while the Russians can only regret having trusted an unreliable leader.

On the domestic front, too, despite the repression that followed the failed coup d’état of 2016, things are not going well.

The deep economic crisis, resulting from excessive military spending, poor administrative capacity and rampant corruption, as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish President and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which have ruled the country continuously since 2002.

The recent local elections, in which the AKP was defeated, and the election polls indicate that, despite the tactical alliance between President Erdogan’s party and the ultra-nationalist National Movement, a success for the President and his party in the 2023 general and Presidential elections seems far from certain.

What makes President Erdogan’s sleep even more restless is certainly the ‘Peker scandal’ that has been hitting the headlines of all Turkish newspapers and social media over the last few days.

Sedat Peker, a businessman formerly affiliated with the extreme right-wing organisation of the “Grey Wolves” (the same one to which Ali Agca, known for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, belonged) has long been a supporter of Tayyp Recep Erdogan and is known to have been one of the main suppliers of weapons to jihadist groups involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last April, after being accused of corruption and criminal conspiracy, he went into self-exile, first in Montenegro and then in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been conducting a relentless campaign against President Erdogan and his party on charges of corruption and other crimes and offences.

Under the interested supervision of Mohamed Dalhan, the former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service in the Gaza strip, exiled to the Emirates after the break with Hamas, Sedat Peker daily floods social media with accusations against the Turkish President’s “magic circle”, starting with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and his ally Mehemet Agar, former Police Chief, who in Peker’s opinion are responsible not only for corruption, but also for extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

Despite government-imposed censorship, these sensational accusations dominate the political debate in Turkey.

Mohammed Dalhan, the Palestinian secret agent, helps Sedat Peker both out of a spirit of revenge against Hamas and, hence, against its Turkish supporter, and because the Abu Dhabi government, for which he now works, has not favourably viewed Turkey’s attempts to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and moderate Arab countries and the explicit support offered by President Erdogan to Hamas during the recent “eleven-day war”. Moreover, the latter ended thanks to Egypt’s mediation – a diplomatic success for the moderate Arab front that pushes Turkey and its leader ever further to the sidelines, as they – observant Sunnis – are now forced to move closer to the heretical Shiites of Iran, the only ones who now seem to give credit to President Erdogan, who is now like a bad student relegated to a corner of the classroom, from which he will find it difficult to escape without a clear change of course towards a more moderate approach in domestic policy and a rapprochement to the West in foreign policy.

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Iranian Election Portends Increased Human Rights Abuses, Demands Western Response

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When the Iranian regime holds its presidential election this Friday, it is likely to experience the lowest level of voter turnout in its 42-year history. This has been acknowledged by certain Iranian officials and state media outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, which include the lingering effects of three anti-regime uprisings, public resentment over authorities’ crackdowns on those uprisings, a lack of serious competition among the candidates, and the brutal legacy of the clear frontrunner.

All but the last of these factors were already apparent in February of last year, when Iranian regime held elections for various governors and members of parliament. Those elections are the ones to beat if the country is to set a new record for low turnout this week. Moreover, if persistently anti-democratic conditions aren’t enough to yield that outcome on their own, public antipathy toward Ebrahim Raisi might just be the thing that pushes the electoral boycott over the top.

For months now, Raisi has been recognized as a person favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the next President. But that preference specifically stems from Raisi’s unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and his willingness to flout the security and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians in order to safeguard the future of the theocratic dictatorship. In 2019, Raisi was appointed to head the nation’s judiciary, and his penchant for political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – a follow-up to similar protests in January 2018.

The regime’s response to the latter uprising constituted one of the worst singular crackdowns on dissent since the early years of the Iranian regime. As head of the judiciary, Raisi played a leading role in that crackdown, particularly the systematic torture of political prisoners that was detailed in a September 2020 report by Amnesty International. That report was closely accompanied by the emergence of new evidence supporting the tally of protest-related killings provided by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

The MEK, which has long been recognized as the leading voice for Iranian democracy, quickly determined that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had killed 1,500 people in mass shooting incidents over just several days coinciding with the November 2019 uprising. Over time, the MEK has also released the names of more than half of the victims, naturally starting with those who were members of the organisation or were otherwise closely connected to it.

Details of the crackdown serve to underscore the notion that it was largely an attack on the MEK, which Khamenei had acknowledged as a driving force behind the initial uprising in early 2018. The supreme leader referenced months of planning by dissidents in order to explain the popular embrace of slogans calling for “death to the dictator” and condemning both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream politics inside the regime. This messaging was tantamount to a call for regime change – the expressed platform of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

In recent weeks, MEK-affiliated activist collectives known as “Resistance Units” have been using precisely this platform to promote the concept of an all-encompassing electoral boycott. In April alone, those activists erected posters, painted graffiti, and held demonstrations in more than 250 localities across the Islamic Republic, urging citizens to “vote for regime change” by avoiding the polls and denying any semblance of legitimacy to the ruling system. Since then, the call to action has been echoed by various other groups, including pensioners and blue-collar workers whose frustration with the regime has greatly intensified in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by self-serving government policies and blatant corruption.

Protests by these and other demographics have lately come to feature slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication is that Iranians from all walks of life are not only rejecting the current election but also the entire underlying system, in favour of a platform akin to that which is being promoted by the MEK and the NCRI. The details of that platform are clarified for an international audience each year at a rally of Iranian expatriates and political supporters which invariably features eager endorsement of the “10-point plan” for a democratic Iranian republic that was authored roughly 15 years ago by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.

The plan calls for free and fair elections as well as secular pluralism, and it expresses a commitment to international laws and principles of human rights. By contrast, the existing regime has repeatedly rejected those laws and principles through such recurring actions as its execution of juvenile offenders, its routine usage of torture and forced confessions, and its explicit insistence upon exception from human rights standards that are deemed to conflict with the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.

Despite all of these, Tehran’s contempt for human rights has arguably never been more blatant than is now, in the run-up to Raisi’s appointment as the regime’s next president. His role in the crackdowns following the November 2019 are certainly one reason for this, but the main source of Raisi’s infamy remains his participation in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Those killings arguably constitute the late 20th century’s single worst crime against humanity, and as one of four figures in Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi bears as much responsibility as anybody for the roughly 30,000 hangings that were carried out over just several months.

In commenting on the election, the NCRI has made it clear that Raisi was chosen to run a more-or-less uncontested campaign precisely because of this legacy. Specifically, the NCRI argues that Khamenei witnessed the Resistance movement gaining momentum and resolved to consolidate power in the hands of those most comfortable with political violence. But in so doing, the supreme leader gave Iranians even more incentive to protest the political process than they had had in February 2020. Thus, when Raisi takes office, he will immediately be faced with the challenge of compensating for an electoral boycott that effectively deprive the regime of any claim to political legitimacy.

The consequences of that challenge will surely depend, in part, on the role that the international community chooses to take on in the midst of forthcoming conflicts between the Iranian regime and a population that is showing ever-greater support for an organised resistance. If major world powers elect to stand on the sidelines, it could give the Raisi administration license to assume office and then immediately initiate human rights abuses rivaling those of November 2019, or possibly approaching those of summer 1988. However, if those powers recognize this danger and instead elect to intervene on the Iranian people’s behalf, then they may find they have ample opportunities to do so.

Relevant strategies will be presented by NCRI officials and the political supporters, including European and American lawmakers and academics with diverse party affiliations, when they take part in the coalition’s World Summit on a Free Iran between July 10 and 12.

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Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Way Forward

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The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, confessed (as mentioned in the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy), “If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” 

Why did Ben Gurion say this? He knew that, initially the land did belong to the Jews, but when it was taken over by the Babylonians long ago, it remained no longer theirs. The Muslims had no role, whatsoever, in that occupation since the Babylonian captivity occurred around a thousand years before the emergence of Islam, implying that Muslims did not besiege this land from the Jews. In other words, when Jews were living there, it was their national homeland and when Muslims became the dominant force there, it turned out to be their national homeland. 

This piece of land has remained sacred to both Jews (as Ben Gurion said, above) and Muslims. It is the place containing the first Qibla of Muslims and associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) journey to the heavens. For Jews, it contains the Temple of Solomon. Thus, both historically and religiously, Muslims have the equal right on this land as Jews. On these bases, neither Muslims nor Jews are ready to give up this land, hence a conflict continues between them. 

Following the realization of the unjust Balfour declaration, two prominent solutions have been proposed: one state of two nations (Muslims and Jews) or two states of two nations.

One-state two-nation solution refers to a unitary state which includes the whole territory of Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip. The federating units can be autonomous for the better functioning of the one state of two nations. The state would be shared and owned as equals by Jews and Muslims alike. Culturally, it would remain a salad bowl – the two peoples would retain their distinct cultural identities yet live together. If better sense prevails, the coexistence of Muslims and Jews would enable them to utilize each other’s potential and pursue their common interests, i.e., peace and stability.

In this regard, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) set a guiding principle for the mutual co-existence of two nations (i.e., Muslims and non-Muslims) in the charter of Medina. This charter was democratically agreed by the leaders of all local tribes in such a way that all the parties to the agreement committed to defend the Medina state from any external aggressor. One example to illustrate the level of commitment is noteworthy. A prominent Jewish scholar, Makhreeq, took part in the battle of Uhud and fought alongside Muslims against the Mushriqin of Mecca. He was killed in the battle performing the commitment made under the Medina charter. He even made sure that if he was killed, his family must donate all his wealth to the state treasury for the protection of the homeland. The Medina charter valued religious differences by not making one religion superior to others. One of its clauses was that Muslims would abide by their religious laws and Jews by theirs. They were not to lose their religious identities but live together as politically equals while maintaining the religious differences. 

The one-state solution can end the hostilities between the two peoples. A multicultural nation can be inclusive for all, and be a state to be recognized by other states. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 outlined the notions of a national home for the Jewish people without infringing the religious as well as civil rights of the non-Jewish people. However, it contained a fundamental flaw. It provided Jews national rights but did not give the Palestinians the same status.

On similar lines, Yousef Munnayer, a Palestinian-American writer and the former Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, proposed a one state formula, which provides equal rights to all the citizens in every essence of the word. He wrote in the Foreign Affairs magazine, “The question, then, is not whether there will be a single state but what kind of state it should be. Will it be one that cements de facto apartheid in which Palestinians are denied basic rights? Or will it be a state that recognizes Israelis and Palestinians as equals under the law?” If we analyze the latter state in the light of Medina charter, it would be feasible and acceptable for two nations to exist as political equals. While protecting and preserving the religious identities of both nations, a one-state solution must provide equality to them in the political realm.

If the one-state solution is not possible, then the alternative could be the two-state solution, which means that the Gaza Strip and West Bank would unitedly become Palestinian territory and the remaining part would remain Israel. This is something on whose basis Pakistan also supports the Palestinian cause and backs a pre-1967 border solution. In such a scenario, Palestine would resemble Pakistan before the fall of Dhaka – Gaza and West Bank separated by Israel in between, just like East and West Pakistan separated by India before 1971. 

The aggression by Israel every now and then must end. Human security should become the focus. A binational secular state accepting the religious differences and considering all the people as equals can work in the benefit of all. A peaceful settlement to the dispute is the only thing that is beneficial for both of them, especially the Palestinians. 

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