Coronavir – an opportunity to make the Middle East safer – Opinions – News


The Middle East region has already become safer due to the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, the virus crosses borders and creates a fertile ground for cooperation. Could this crisis opportunity be seized? The TVNET portal offers a conversation with Arji Marselo Kacović, a professor at the Jewish University of Jerusalem.

Perhaps you can tell us about the current situation regarding the spread of Covid-19 in Israel? What restrictive measures have been adopted and have they been effective?

Today is a really important day, because we are celebrating 72 years since Israel’s declaration of independence. I have lived in this country for 40 years and I have never faced such a celebration of independence as today. What is happening now in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is not much different from what is happening in other parts of the world. In answer to your question, it seems to me that Israel has been relatively successful so far. Although about 200 people have died from the coronavirus and about 15,000 have become infected, half of them have already recovered. Compared to some Western European countries and Iran in the Middle East, these figures are not statistically high.

I think there are several reasons for this. Israel is a geopolitically relative island. We only have one international airport, and quite quickly the Prime Minister made the right decision to close it. I think it has to do with his personality. However, there has also been some chaos in the management of the crisis, as the same Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) feared two months ago that Israel could suffer around 100,000 deaths. It is also worth mentioning that Israeli society is relatively young and has already experienced a number of security crises, which have made it easier to prepare for the challenges posed by the virus (such as the intifada or Palestinian uprising). Israel also has a relatively good health care system

With regard to the Palestinian Territories, it is necessary to distinguish the situation in the West Bank from that in the Gaza Strip. As for the Gaza Strip, it has a huge population density and extreme poverty. However, paradoxically, no cases have been reported there. This is because the Gaza Strip is completely isolated from the outside world due to the siege imposed by the Israeli and Egyptian governments. Also, the population living in this area is relatively young. However, it is undeniable that the possibility of the virus spreading in this area is quite frightening. They do not have the health care system available in Israel.

PHOTO: SIPA / Scanpix

What about the cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority at this time? Is this happening, or is each side trying to deal with the crisis autonomously?

I just wanted to say that cooperation between the government based in the West Bank and the Israeli government is much more active than between the government of Israel and the government based in the Gaza Strip. I believe that Israel could be more active in providing humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. On the positive side, health workers in the Gaza Strip are going to study in Israel to understand how to deal more effectively with the spread of the coronavirus.

I think that the main reason for more active cooperation between the Israeli and West Bank governments is the fact that their borders are much more open. For example, I read today that the Israeli Government has stipulated that Palestinian workers whose work is in Israeli territory will not be allowed to stay there overnight. Paradoxically, the Palestinian Authority does not want to take these people back, as it is believed that they could bring the virus from Israel to the West Bank. It is also interesting to note that the last two months since the start of Covid-19 have been very peaceful in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is a paradox, because when people need to fight major threats (such as zombies or an invasion from Mars), they begin to cooperate with each other.

This goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think this pandemic has created something positive. For example, in a traditional ceremony (starting Independence Day celebrations), people are chosen to light torches. I noticed yesterday that at least two Palestinians working in health care were selected.

The news has been that the government in Israel has identified the need for people to use a special application that tracks their movements. Do you not consider such a move to be a serious threat to the privacy of the population and a threat to Israeli democracy?

It’s not that we need to download this application. Moreover, for the time being, it appears that the Supreme Court is trying to curb such drastic steps. Such applications were used to monitor suspected terrorists before the start of the Covid-19 crisis and are now only used to better identify areas where a virus outbreak is occurring. However, I agree that such steps are very slippery in relation to the threat to privacy.

In general, I believe that there is a lot of political manipulation in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. For example, the Prime Minister has successfully used the situation to reach an agreement on the formation of a coalition that will allow him to remain in power.

The Minister of Justice has already managed to cancel the hearings, and the Netanyahu trial has been postponed to the end of May (it was scheduled to begin last month).

You have already mentioned, in a way, that the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his rival, Benny Ganch, have formed a crisis government, which is likely to continue after the state of emergency in Israel. Benny Gancs had previously said that he would never agree to form a government with Netanyahu. Does this mean that Netanyahu has used the Covid-19 crisis to maintain his power?

I think you could definitely say that. At the same time, it is much more difficult to understand Benny Ganca’s motivation. He has been criticized by many political wings, and those who look at us need to be made aware that there have been three elections in Israel in just over a year. He may have seen this as a good time to distance himself from political differences. After all, there is no ideological difference between him and Netanyahu’s party. The biggest spears have been broken about the political and legal status of the prime minister. Looks like it’s been left out.

It must also be borne in mind that the crisis will have a negative impact on the socio-economic situation in Israel. It is possible that Netanyahu sees a very good deal in the context of this situation, as he will be able to pass on the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of the crisis to his competitors.

Similar trends can be observed elsewhere in the world. For example, the Hungarian Prime Minister could increase his power through political manipulation.

As a teacher of international relations, it reminds me of Naomi Klein’s book The Doctrine of Shock. Politicians can use crises to achieve their goals. In this context, I think that Israel is a good object of analysis. Netanyahu is a great politician in every case. One can debate whether he is a good statesman, but a politician he is great.

As regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli government has promised to stick to the plan to annex the Jordan Valley. Does this mean that the Israeli Government is trying to use the Covid-19 crisis to further weaken the Palestinian position?

It is not very clear about this yet. It is not clear whether this is a political manipulation on the part of Netanyahu, or whether he really wants to leave some legacy to Israel. The issue here is not so much the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which is relatively sparsely populated, but the annexation of Jewish villages in the Palestinian Authority, which are home to some 400 000 Israelis.

In fact, I am more concerned about this annexation than with the coronavirus. If that really happens, then it could put an end to the two-state solution.

In any case, it seems that Benny Gancs and his Blue and White party are not fully interested in such a scenario. These players are currently spreading relatively vague political messages. For example, the Netanyahu-Ganca coalition agreement stipulates that such actions must be approved by the United States. After all, Trump’s current plan to settle Israeli-Palestinian relations has been initiated by the United States. I am also not sure whether the Trump administration would simply support such action publicly. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already said that this is an Israeli decision and should not turn to Washington.

So it is very difficult to say what will happen. It should be emphasized, however, that annexation would have international consequences. For example, neighboring Jordan could choose to freeze or cancel the peace agreement with Israel. It would also mean the end of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

PHOTO: AFP / Scanpix

Can we say that the Oslo peace process is over? Is there a new order in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will the Covid-19 crisis only intensify this process?

I would not like to draw apocalyptic conclusions. I have been teaching about the Oslo process for 15 years and I always tell my students that transactions that are written off as dead are actually alive.

In practice, since the beginning of the crisis, cooperation between Israel and Palestine has become much better than before. There are even discussions about a possible deal between the Israeli government and Hamas to return the bodies of two Israelis and two Israeli soldiers.

Hamas is interested in it because it wants the help of the Israeli government. Let us also remember that in 1981, the government of Prime Minister Menahim Begin extended Israel’s law on sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Also in 1992, in his pre-election campaign, Prime Minister Ichak Rabin promised that Israel would not resign from its position in the Golan Heights. Then, in February 2000, Israel and Syria almost signed a peace agreement providing for the return of the highlands to Damascus. Never say never!

What impact could Covid-19 have on the Israeli and Palestinian economies? How much damage could they suffer?

We can’t really say that yet, but I am more familiar with Israeli statistics. It says that in a country with a population of 9 million, about 1 million are unemployed. They depend on the Israeli social assistance system. Compared to Western European countries, government assistance has not been as generous. As far as the Palestinian territories are concerned, I think that the crisis is affecting the people of Gaza more. Even before the crisis, there was very high unemployment in the area.

However, there is also a small paradox here.

Both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are more accustomed to things like curfews and economic blockades.

I think that the people living in these areas can cope with the challenges of Covid-19 much better than Israel, for which such restrictions are more new. Thus, although the economic blow to the Palestinian territories is greater, it is less severe.

For the time being, the holy month of Ramadan is also taking place in the Muslim world. Has Covid-19 affected the access of low-income Muslims to economic assistance? Let us not forget that charity is also an integral part of Ramadan, but during Covid-19 it is much more difficult to organize events where this charity can be received.

If possible. However, civil society is helping in this context. Volunteers try to get the charity of Ramadan to the needy even during Covid-19. The Israeli government is also preparing assistance in this context. I think that this pandemic has dealt a major blow to the socio-economic situation of people in all parts of the world. However, from a bright point of view, we go back a bit to prehistoric times, when each family has its own cave in common. I have told my daughters that we finally have the opportunity to spend time together. We have not had this opportunity for years.

Speaking of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, do you think it could happen this year? If that happens, how will the Israeli and Palestinian governments avoid the pilgrimage of the Covid-19 pandemic?

I don’t think the pilgrimage will take place this year. It should happen in a few weeks, but everyone is still at home. I’m home for now.

PHOTO: Reuters / Scanpix

You mentioned earlier that cooperation between Israel and Palestine has increased. If we look at the Middle East as a whole, will you agree that they have become safer? Countries seem to have shifted their focus from internal conflicts and security issues to the fight against the spread of the virus.

Yes, I will agree. However, I think that countries such as the United States and Israel could be more generous in providing assistance to Iran. Although, of course, the Iranian regime is currently testing satellites. It is possible that this is happening to develop mass destruction capabilities. In principle, however, it seems that countries have begun to think more about how to deal with the spread of a pandemic.

It could actually be an opportunity. So far, Israel has not had much cooperation with the countries of the region without diplomatic relations.

For example, the author of the Israeli column, Gideon Levy, has written that the virus crosses national borders and creates a fertile ground for cooperation.

However, it seems to me that this opportunity will not be seized. The UN has already proposed a global ceasefire in all world conflicts, but the United States and Russia have vetoed the initiative. We, the teachers of international relations, will still have topics to analyze.

How do you think the Covid-19 crisis could affect the future development of Israel and Palestine? Do you see any potential changes?

I do not know how to answer this question. There are positive trends towards a political settlement, but there is a great deal of uncertainty. Let us say that it is possible to manipulate this crisis for some political gain. The annexation of Israeli settlements in the context of the coronavirus could have far greater consequences than the virus itself. A vaccine and medicine will eventually be developed against the virus, but the political implications can be catastrophic.

PHOTO: AFP / Scanpix


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