While Gaza was tragically going up in flames, about 50 Israelis and a similar number of Palestinians and Europeans gathered together in Florence this week for a tripartite conference (pdf) devoted to "Europe's Role in the Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict."
The meeting was held under the shadow of a great sense of urgency and crisis. As was noted in the Florence declaration issued on June 13, after a difficult night of negotiations between representatives of the three parties: "We are on the edge of the precipice. Accordingly, the reaction of civil societies on both sides of the conflict comes at a time when there is a stalemate at the negotiating level, lack of strong political leadership and public apathy towards a political horizon …"
The conference united around a call to "accept the Arab Peace Initiative (which expresses the readiness of the Arab world to accept the State of Israel and normalize relations with it after a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem) as a basic framework for peace negotiations." It called for a halt to any unilateral action, including settlement expansion, the building of the wall on Palestinian territories and unilateral measures in East Jerusalem "that jeopardize the two-state solution." As one of the Palestinian delegates stated, "we must combat our enemies, which are occupation, unilateralism, fundamentalism and violence." There was also a call for greater European involvement in the region, and "an international presence" on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, to lay the foundation for stability and a future resolution of the conflict.
The conference was hosted by the Region of Tuscany and the Florence Municipality, with the active participation of Massimo Toschi, the regional minister for peace, international cooperation, forgiveness and reconciliation, a unique title on the international stage, with the support of the Italian foreign ministry.
Italy's prime minister, Romano Prodi, addressed the closing session of the conference, and responded to questions from Dr. Ron Pundak and Dr. Riad Malki, the co-chairs of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. While Prodi was very supportive of the initiative, and promised to meet with representatives of the joint Peace NGO Forum on his next visit to the region, he was not very forthcoming in terms of specifics.
The prime minister's hesitancy to be more explicit was explained in the following manner by a senior Italian source at the conference: Soon after he was elected, Prodi took the lead together with French President Jacques Chirac to create the reinforced international presence in southern Lebanon after the war last summer. Prodi cannot continue to take the lead today, but the Italians are definitely ready to be part of a coalition that creates an international presence in the Occupied Territories.
The source raised a number of suggestions as to who could take the lead today to help diffuse and stabilize the current situation:
1) The outgoing British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the incoming prime minister, Gordon Brown: With the transition about to take place between the two, they are uniquely placed to initiate an international presence on the ground in Gaza;
2) French President Nicolas Sarkozy: As the newly elected leader of France, he is well-placed to initiate such a move;
3) German Chancellor Angela Merkel: It would be a fitting end to Germany’s EU presidency to initiate such a move;
4) An inter-Arab initiative: The Italian source spoke with the Egyptian ambassador at the conference, who said that Egypt was not in a position to do something on its own; however, if Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and, to some degree, even Iran were involved, an inter-Arab initiative could be relevant. This echoed the call at the conference by former Palestine Authority Minister of Prisoner Affairs Dr. Sufian Abu Zaydah, a Gazan, for an Arab League presence on the ground in Gaza; and
5) American involvement: The source also said that it would be helpful if the Americans would get involved, but he placed the emphasis on a European-led initiative.
Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, posed the European post-Second World War dream and reality of cooperation and reduced sovereignty as a model that should eventually be emulated by all of the Middle Eastern countries.
There were a number of emotional moments at the conference. One was when three of the Palestinian participants, Dr. Zaida, Jibril Rajoub and Kadura Faris, were informed by SMS that one of their friends and colleagues, who had spent 14 years with them in an Israeli prison, had been brutally murdered by Hamas militants.
A second was at the closing session, when the family of a young Italian peace activist who was randomly murdered in 2006 outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem by a young Palestinian, declared in the great hall of the historic Palazzo Vecchio that they held no sense of anger or revenge towards the perpetrator, and intended to organize a day of peace in Jerusalem this August on the first anniversary of the murder. In response, Aaron Barnea of the joint Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents Forum, who lost his son in a suicide attack, invited the family to take part in their activities, and pledged that they would be present on the peace day in Jerusalem.
The official language of the conference was English, but another very moving moment occurred at the closing session when Jibril Rajoub said that he wanted to say a few words to the Israelis in Hebrew, a language he learned and perfected in prison. He quoted the great Talmudic Rabbi Hillel, one of the authors of the Golden Rule, as follows: "Im ein ani li mi li, v'im ani rak / l'atzmi mah ani, v'im lo achav, eimatai" (If I am not for myself who will be and if I am only / for myself what am I, and if not now, when). "We've got to do it together," he concluded.
And finally, I'd like to quote another phrase I heard at the conference, I'm not sure from whom, inspired by the BBC series: We must not be silent witnesses.
First posted on The Guardian Comment is free …