Israelis and Palestinians to Obama

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s arrival for a three day visit to our historic and troubled neighborhood, about 15 Israelis and Palestinians gathering together to talk about their expectations, hopes and recommendations for the future. The meeting, organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal, with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Representative Office to the Palestinians, took place symbolically at the Notre Dame Center, literally on the border between West and East Jerusalem, opposite New Gate and the walls of the Old City.

A state of urgency

To begin with the bottom line of the three hour discussion – their joint message to President Obama was that it is essential to move forward towards a two state solution, before it is too late. All of the participants felt that it was vital that the President understand the urgency of the situation. There was a general feeling among the participants that if no progress is made in the foreseeable future, a two-state option may no longer remain on the table, though a one-state option is not viable either. All that will be left is a recipe for renewed violence, frustration and dangerous regional instability, which could endanger not only Israel but the entire world.

The Palestinian participants included senior Fatah, PLO and PA representatives, while the Israelis included veteran diplomats, academics and civil society representatives. Interestingly members of the new Knesset from both the opposition and the coalition parties wanted to participate, but were unable to do so because of the Knesset session.

The importance of the Arab Peace Initiative

Many of the Israelis and Palestinians at the Notre Dame also participated earlier in the morning at a similar encounter at the YMCA in West Jerusalem, devoted to Promoting the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as a basis for a comprehensive Middle East Peace, organized by The Center for Democracy & Community Development and The Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, with the support of the EU Partnership for Peace program and IKV Pax Christi. And according to reports in today’s newspapers, we know that Secretary of State John Kerry intends to use the API, originally launched at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002, and since ratified many times, including after the Arab Spring broke out, as one of the cornerstones for American policy for promoting progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. The Arab Peace Initiative is an offer on behalf of the 22 states of the Arab World, backed by the 57 Muslim states – including Iran – for peace and normal relations with Israel, in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a mutually agreed upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. The importance of the API was also stressed at the afternoon meeting.

Expectations from Obama’s visit

The meeting at Notre Dame was held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that it was a free and open discussion, with no written summary or quotes allowed. Therefore I am free only to mention my own contribution to the discussion:

    1) Concerning the Obama visit, while one of the Israeli participants said cynically that its only contribution would be towards Israeli tourism, since the President was coming with an entourage of 350 people, in my view it is preparatory stage for the real work which will be carried out by Kerry during the next six months. Thus the current visit is essentially preparation to set the stage for serious work towards reviving an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
    2) Contrary to pessimistic assessments about the new Israeli government’s desire to be an active partner in advancing the peace process, in addition to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her party, many of the MKs in Yesh Atid have a clear commitment to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
    3) While we all know that continued settlement expansion undermines the prospects for peace and a two state solution, now is the time to put the cost of the settlements on the Israeli agenda. Yair Lapid based his campaign on the slogan “Where’s the money?” and so far has only answered with challenging the Haredim/ultra-Orthodox extortion of government funds. Well, there is another sector which receives a disproportionate percentage of funding compared to the average Israeli – the settlements. The time is ripe to emphasize the cost of the settlements, and the way in which they are an obstacle to peace, security and continued prosperity for the average Israeli.
    4) And finally, if the State of Israel is the focal point for the Jewish right to national self-determination, just as the future Palestinian state will be the focal point for the Palestinian right to national self-determination, then the liberal Jews around the world have the right and even duty to speak out about the future direction of the country, along the lines of the appeal by internationally renowned Tel Aviv University Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, “If you Care about Israel, Silence is no Longer an Option!”

Two States for Two Peoples

Alongside the two meetings I have mentioned, President Obama was also greeted by two ads in the Israeli press. One, organized by J Street, the American pro-Israel-pro-peace lobby, and signed by many prominent Israelis, welcomed the President, and emphasized that “true security for the State of Israel cannot be based only on military might. Israel must arrive at a true peace with its Palestinian neighbors, based upon a two state solution”. The other ad, also welcoming the President, and signed by even more prominent Israelis, was headlined “Shalom means Peace!”, and it emphasized the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace.

President Obama has now landed in Israel, and after the opening ceremony in Ben-Gurion Airport, is now in the midst of his initial discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I was very pleased to hear President Shimon Peres emphasize the importance of peace and a two-state solution in his opening remarks. I was also happy to hear, after the playing of the two national anthems, the famous pre-1967 song by Naomi Shemer, Machar (Tomorrow), with its dream of peace, of the day when the soldiers can removed their uniforms, and the belief that all of this will come about, if not tomorrow, than the next day.

And at the press conference after the first day’s meetings, President Obama even got Prime Minister Netanyahu to declare that he was in favor of “two states for two peoples”, the old slogan of the Israeli Communist Party, after he totally ignored the Palestinian issue during the election campaign. Now the challenge will be to introduce meaningful content into that declaration.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Times of Israel