For the past few weeks the world's attention has been riveted on the territories occupied by Israel. The significance of what is happening is that the sacrifices of the post-1967 generation of Palestinian youth, paying the ultimate price -- their lives -- have achieved the seemingly impossible goal of rekindling interest in this long-festering conflict and bringing the Palestinian issue back to the top of the world's agenda.
Various forces had conspired to downgrade the Palestinian problem: the success of the Israeli political body in preserving the status quo, the emergence of the Gulf War as the Arab countries' top priority and the indifference of the international community to a situation put on hold.
Today, thanks to the generation now coming of age, a generation that does not fear Israeli bullets, we have a whole new situation. There has been a rude awakening not only of Israel's public opinion but of the lethargic, complacent political establishment.
Israelis have made the traditional response in the first weeks of the disturbances: closing of ranks, a right-wing radicalization of attitudes, more repressive measures and widespread use of the "iron fist" policies, regardless of human rights infringements. But at the same time there has developed a new sense of urgency, a feeling that the continued occupation by force of 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot continue.
The ultimate goal of the uprising is to end the occupation and achieve a separate Palestinian identity based on an independent Palestinian state in the areas occupied by Israel since June 1967.
The first steps have been taken: the status quo has been broken, and the Palestinian case is back in the forefront of world issues. Yet the long-term effort to achieve a political settlement is just slowly starting.
And long and difficult as that effort may prove to be, one thing should be realized from the start: that such a settlement is in the long-term interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. It will put an end to a long history of conflict that began in the early 1900s, and will be the prelude to a new era of economic cooperation and friendly relations. That is what will happen if we can wisely translate this new situation into a new political reality, and by "we" I mean both Palestinians and Israelis. Not only the region will benefit, but also the cause of world peace, at least to the extent that a settlement eases friction between the two superpowers.
To keep attention focused on the situation while the negotiating process advances, a new tool has been introduced into the arena. Whether it is called nonviolent resistance to the occupation, civil disobedience or -- probably the most appropriate term -- national disobedience, it is important for several reasons.
One is the influence it can have on Israeli opinion. As I have noted, there has in recent weeks been an Israeli backlash caused by the disturbances -- a right-wing radicalization. This is an election year in Israel, and if changes are to be sought in the policies of the Israeli government, there have to be changes in Israeli attitudes toward the emergence of a Palestinian state. Thus the Israeli grass roots, the Israeli voter, has to be talked to, positively influenced. Such a campaign can do this, because it can also be a campaign the Israeli peace camp can join in through joint demonstrations, sit-ins, meetings and other forms of nonviolent action.
Another effect of the disobedience campaign is economic. Certain measures are intended to make the continued holding of the territories unprofitable. One is asking Palestinians to shrink the second biggest Israeli export market (after the United States) by encouraging equivalent local products; a "buy Palestinian" campaign is emerging and other measures are being considered, such as legally not paying taxes.
The political options are many and varied, yet all lead to negotiations under an international conference. In this regard, some action by the superpowers will be essential. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, for example, recently urged before the U.N. Security Council the convening of an international conference under terms of a preparatory arrangement made by the council's five permanent members. The United States sponsored an initiative by Arab and Israeli leaders that was viable up to February 1986 but became dormant because of lack of U.S. interest in the issue. A promising initiative within the second generation of Israel's Likud Party toward working out some sort of accommodation was torpedoed by the party's leadership.
Right now, the greatest hope may reside in the efforts of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is canvassing international, Arab, Israeli and Palestinian support for a new initiative to put life into the peace process. He is probably the most qualified mediator in this situation, for he has certain essential advantages that other mediators before him have lacked. For one thing, he has a warm relationship with East and West, with both superpowers and with most of the Arab countries. But more important, he is in a unique position to be able to tell, feel and measure the reactions of the two parties that need to work toward a lasting peace: Israelis and Palestinians. To be more specific, he is one of the few influential figures in the world who are on speaking terms with both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the government of Israel.
What is needed in this situation is to discard the conventional, the traditional methods that have not worked in the past. Mubarak, to succeed, must be unorthodox -- not committed to a specific way, yet committed to a consensus. And he must study all the options, improvising and synthesizing. He will have to lean on some people and perhaps bully them -- gently, one hopes.
Never before have conditions for a settlement been as ripe as they are now. Never before have we had an Arab mediator as acceptable as Mubarak is to all parties to the conflict. Let us ask the international community to give support and assistance. Let the Arab world use Egypt in peace, just as in earlier periods it used that nation in war. And above all, let both Palestinians and Israelis temper their reactions as Mubarak persists, and invests his time, patience and efforts in this cause. Peace is needed by all in the Middle East, and we can achieve it.
The writer is editor of the Arabic daily newspaper Al Fajr in East Jerusalem. Generally known as a political moderate, he was accepted in 1985 as a potential Palestinian delegate to peace talks -- which never came about -- by Israel, the PLO and the United States.