SHARM EL-SHEIKH: Twelve young people from across the Middle East, including three from Israel, vented their frustration to four leading political figures over the economic situation in the region and the absence of progress towards peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a debate organized by the BBC during the World Economic Forum on Monday entitled, “The Middle East: What Future for the Next Generation? , Middle Eastern youth expressed their concern over the future of economic sustainability in a region divided by war and their evident feeling of disconnection with their governments because of a gap between what they say and what they do.
Although a country like Egypt has implemented a number of economic reforms that led to a sustainable 7 percent GDP growth in the past three years, many have yet to feel the benefits of these changes, a young Egyptian woman said.
Gamal Mubarak, assistant secretary-general and head of the Policy Secretariat of the National Democratic Party in Egypt, agreed, saying that despite the government’s achievement in boosting growth and employment, the benefits have not trickled down to the average citizen. “At the core of our reform is how to make it more inclusive, how to reach out, he said.
Nevertheless, he warned that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a drag on economic growth in the region. The Palestinian Authority was told to reform and that this would aid peace, but when it did, peace did not follow, he said.
“Peace is not moving as expected, and the region will not reach its full potential until it is achieved, he added.
Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, agreed that peace is the cornerstone of sustainable economic growth in the Palestinian Authority.
“It is possible to have development under these conditions, but it is not sustainable, he said, “why would industry invest here when there are alternatives?
Addressing the 60-year-long peace concern, a young woman from Israel said she fears that people are beginning to show indifference towards prospects of peace because they think the economy will be able to thrive without it.
“We need peace very urgently, Ehud Barak, Israeli minister of defense said, “Israel might find itself with no choice, unable to move on and flourish without peace.
At the same time, Barak asserted that the peace process was not stalled because of Israel and that “it needs two to tango.
United Nations Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair argued that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will not be solved unless all economies apply an open market approach and realize people’s potential. “Equality is mandatory and must be applied in the entire region, not just Palestine and Israel, he said.
Brushing off accusations that the youth do not have a viable role in decision-making and feel a sense of “apathy, Blair said that it was easy to put the blame on politicians. “Young people need to get involved, leadership is not easy, he said.
Another problem highlighted by the youth is the continuing political division among Palestinians. But Fayyad said that it is not enough to say you need to reunite, “we all need to be on the same page, he said, adding that the key difficulty is “military pluralism.
The need for a coherent negotiation that includes all slants of the peace process is mandatory. However, Barak and Blair both agreed that Israel cannot engage in talks with Hamas until it renounces violence. “We have a common basis with the Palestinian Authority, but we do not have this with Hamas, Barak said.
Blair cited the Northern Ireland peace process as an example, saying it was only made possible to start negotiations in the 1990s when the IRA expressed its commitment to peace. “It will only work if all agree that everyone has a right to exist. Time is not on Israel’s side, extremists will continue to feed on the conflict, Blair said.
“It’s about time countries start using their leverage rather than leaving the two parties to talk together endlessly, Mubarak said.s