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In Colombia, it took courage to make peace. I worry Israel is choosing conflict instead

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Photo: brightlensuk for Blavatnik School of Government and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative

Warning that Israel's threat of annexation risks creating an apartheid-style regime, Juan Manuel Santos draws on his experience of making peace in Colombia, underscoring the importance of the rule of law and respect for universal human rights. Published in El Pais and Haaretz.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has scarred the Middle East for over 70 years. My country, Colombia, endured a similarly long-running and bitter conflict, seen as intractable and self-perpetuating. 

The path to peace took courage and magnanimity. As a friend of Israel, I am deeply concerned that these values are wholly absent from its government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

When I was President of Colombia, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela called my country "the Israel of Latin America." I took this as a compliment! There is much to admire in Israeli resilience, entrepreneurship and technological innovation. 

I still admire the values of the founders of the State of Israel and the commitment in its Declaration of Independence to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."

But today I fear this vision is under attack from a hyper-nationalist government that openly scorns human rights and international law. The threat of annexation is just the latest example, which risks creating an apartheid-style regime where two different sets of laws apply to different population groups on the same land.

As President of Colombia, I worked hard to negotiate a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas and other rebel groups to finally bring my country’s civil war to an end. The agreement was rooted in respect for the rights of the victims of the conflict, as stipulated in the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court. This grounding in international law enhanced its strength and credibility at home and abroad.

Today, all Colombians are grappling with the painful and complicated process of implementing the deal and translating the vision of peace into a reality.

Many rejected it as a betrayal; some still do. Many preferred the familiarity of nationalistic and martial rhetoric; some still do. But a groundswell for peace and reconciliation has been growing and will ultimately prove unstoppable. I believe this offers hope not only to Colombia and Latin America, but to the whole world, including Israel and Palestine.

Hope is a precious commodity when the world is confronted not only by the mortal threat of COVID-19 but also the sustained assault on the rules-based international system of rights and norms by populist and isolationist leaders.

One of the greatest exponents of the power of hope was Nelson Mandela in his long walk to freedom. Today I am a member of The Elders, the group of global leaders founded by Mandela to work for peace, justice and human rights across the world.

Peace in the Middle East and justice and freedom for the Palestinians has been a priority for The Elders from the outset and remains so today.

This is why we have chosen to speak out now against annexation, and have urged a resolute and unified response from influential world leaders.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation plans represent a unilateral repudiation of the two-state solution, and are opposed by most countries in the region and internationally. 

Annexation risks plunging the region into deeper turmoil, further fomenting bitterness and alienation among Palestinians, antagonizing Israel’s neighbours and eroding the democratic and constitutional framework of the Jewish state.

If the international community acquiesces in Israel’s de jure acquisition of territory by force, the only people who will benefit are autocrats and aggressors with designs on neighbouring lands. 

The world stood firm when Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. A similar sense of resolve is needed today from all parts of the international community, including Latin America.

Existing multilateral mechanisms like the Quartet should be revitalised and potentially expanded to give a greater role to key Arab countries. Their support will be vital to the success of any negotiated agreement, and they are understandably concerned about the threat that annexation poses to regional security, especially the stability of peaceful and moderate Jordan.

Making peace in Colombia has taught me that you cannot dispense with the rule of law or respect for universal human rights. Whatever short-term political victories may be chalked up by pandering to or stoking sectarian or ideological tensions will prove hollow. 

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. When COVID-19 has brought to a halt the traditional rhythms and timetables of diplomacy, including the UN General Assembly, we all have a responsibility to make our voices heard and stand up for the values of peace, justice and equality before the law as enshrined in the UN Charter.

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