Arab Peace Initiative conference held at West Jerusalem YMCA

On July, 19th, 2016, an Arab Peace Initiative conference was held at the YMCA in West Jerusalem. Israeli and Palestinian representatives active in peace organizations as well as ambassadors and activists from the international community participated in the conference, which was initiated by the Israeli Meretz Party and the Palestinian non-profit organization Center for Democracy and Community Development (CDCD).

Director of the CDCD, Walid Salem, served as the moderator of the conference, together with former Meretz Member of Knesset Abu Vilan. A panel discussion with Mossi Raz, general secretary of Meretz, Hanna Siniora, former Palestinian Ambassador, Dr. Alon Liel, former General Director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Ashraf al-Ajrami, former minister in the Palestinian Authority (PN) was followed by speeches by audience participants, which included the current U.S. Charges D’affairs in Israel Keith Mines, former Israeli Ambassador Ilan Baruch, Jerusalem Councilwoman, Laura Wharton, former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalo, former MK and Consul General in NY Colette Avital, Ziad Darwish of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society and others. The conference addressed both short-term and long-term issues on the conflict, with a focus on the two-state solution and the French Initiative.

photo credit: Flash90

Moderators Abu Vilan and Walid Salem at the opening of the API conference. (Photo: Qianyi Qin).

The French Initiative

“The French Initiative is the only game in town,” said Dr. Liel, former General Director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, “There is a French engine but it is not strong enough to carry the load alone… Let’s give it a push.”

The Middle East Peace Initiative- Joint Communique conference was held in Paris on June 3, 2016. The participants included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, representatives from the Arab League, other main Arab countries and the European Union. The France-led initiative aims to relaunch the peace process and reaffirm support for the two-state solution, which is under threat given the stalemate in bilateral negotiation, continued Israeli settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian territories, and continued Palestinian-Israeli violence.

Liel expressed optimism that the French Initiative has the potential to change Israeli politics and public opinion, especially if guidelines for a peace agreement could reach the UN Security Council.

“The Israeli public believes that the Prime Minister of Israel is a magician. So many illegal things that Israel has done never touched Israel… But if there is a UN Security Council resolution on a two-state solution, then the magician is gone!” said Liel.

Former Palestinian Ambassador (Palestinian ambassador to US or somewhere else?) Hana Siniora observed that, “For twenty years we had higher hopes. What we are seeing right now is a one-state solution where Palestinians have no rights, that is the trend.”

In response, Liel repeated his support for the French Initiative: “At this stage, to have a two-state solution, we need a U-turn. And the French initiative is the U turn.”

The participants at the Paris conference on June. 3 plan to organize an international conference by the end of the year, with both Israelis and Palestinians. “The beauty of the French Initiative is that it will only last six months, and we will be able to see if it will succeed or not,” said Liel.

The International Community and the Civil Society

Many at the conference emphasized the important role that the U.S. plays in the peace process and a sense of urgency for the relaunching of the peace negotiations, in order for the two-state solution to be realized.. “Please tell president Obama this is the last chance. It will be impossible to have a momentum for the two-state solution if we miss this opportunity,” said Liel, pointing out the crucial importance of the two-month period between the November U.S. election and the inauguration of the next U.S. president in January 2017.

The American Charges D’Affairs Keith Mines stated that the U.S. administration still believes in and advocates the two-state solution. “You have lots of support from the U.S. There are people who think in a similar way. There are pockets of supporters everywhere,” said Mines.

photo credit: Flash90

The panel at the API conference. (l to r), Dr. Alon Liel, Ashraf al-Ajrami, Hanna Siniora, Mossi Raz and Walid Salem. Speaking is American Charges D’Affairs Keith Mines. (Photo: Qianyi Qin).

Participants stressed the importance of international pressure on the Israeli administration. “Israel is vulnerable in its dependence on the international community,” said Siniora.

Former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Alalo emphasized that ultimately the Israelis and Palestinians are the ones who are in the position to solve the conflict. “International pressure in itself will not solve the conflict. At the end of the day Israelis and Palestinians need to be convinced themselves that there is no alternative to the two-state solution”.

Prof. Iskandar Najjar (Al-Quds U) observed that since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, many people-to-people communication initiatives have disappeared because of a sense of despair in the Israeli government and anti-normalization sentiments among Palestinians. Siniora suggested that the activists should not stop the attempt to convince people. “If they refuse to listen, that is all the more reason to try to convince them.” said Siniora.

Engaging the Public

“We are preaching to the convinced,” said Hana Siniora, former Palestinian ambassador. He expressed his wish that the conference could have been recorded and televised, to increase awareness of the Arab League Peace Initiative. “The majority of the Israeli public has no knowledge of the Arab League Peace Initiative,” said Member of Knesset Michal Rozin, in her presentation at the conference, “We have to do whatever is possible to inform the Israeli public about the historic importance of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

“The opposite of love is not hate but indifference”, commented one participant, “the question is how to wake the Israeli public up.” “We need to find tools to convince Israelis to accept API as the only (viable) solution,” said Darwish, “Whenever they hear ‘the return of refugees’, they start trembling, they fear that refugees will come to the streets of Israel.” The Arab Peace Initiative calls for “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.

When Darwish criticized the ban issued by Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Feldman preventing Mohammad Madani, head of the Committee for Interaction with the Israeli Society from entering Israel, Mossi Raz said that “the fact that he issued the ban shows that he’s afraid of what you’re doing, because it demonstrates that there is a Palestinian partner for peace, and you should increase your efforts to interact with the Israeli society.”

Letter from the Conference to the Arab League Summit Conference

After the conference, the organizers sent out a letter addressed to the leaders at the upcoming Arab Summit in Mauritania, expressing their continuous support for the Arab Peace Initiative as the proper framework for the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here is the full text of the letter:

“On the eve of the Arab Summit to be held in Mauritania 25-26 of July 2016, We, a group of Israeli and Palestinian prominent and longtime active peace organizations, have the honor to hereby express our continuous support for the Arab Peace Initiative as the proper framework for the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the achievement of a comprehensive, sustainable and fair peace in the Middle East.

    1. Adopt the API as a reference for the French Initiative and establish regional support groups. The focus of the framework is a Palestinian State alongside Israel living in peace and security on the 4th of June 1967 borders with reciprocal borders modifications.
    2. Create channels of communication between the Arab League and the Israeli public. Jordan and Egypt have been entrusted with raising Israeli public awareness of the API, and presenting the Israeli government to accept the API.
    3. Transmit a clear message to Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to end occupation of Arab and Palestinian territories, Israeli settlement expansion, and a freeze to construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem along with support of recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations.
photo credit: Flash90

The audience at the API conference at the YMCA (Photo: Qianyi Qin).