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Palisraelian Symphony

Israelis and Palestinians speak with one voice in the European Parliament

We don’t often hear Israelis and Palestinians speak with one voice. Let alone in parliament, let alone in the European Parliament. And yet, that’s exactly what happened the other day.

Earlier in November 2014, Israeli parliamentarian Nitzan Horowitz, representing the pro-peace wing in the Israeli Knesset, and his colleague Dr Abdullah Abdullah, seasoned diplomat and head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s political committee, spoke with one voice. To the point of note-taking journalists not knowing who said what anymore – because it was so identical. Although they didn’t agree on everything, they did agree on the necessity of a compromise, and on the substance of that compromise. Horowitz and Abdullah were accompanied by a colourful ensemble of other Israelis and Palestinians, many representing civil society organisations, who added their own Alto and Tenor voices to the Horowitz-Abdullah duo, to create one harmonious Palisraelian symphony. And giving us a glimpse of what life could be like if there were peace in the Middle East.

The main theme of that symphony was their wholehearted request to European Union law- and decision-makers to assist them in convincing the Israeli government of the need to reconsider the Arab Peace Initiative, or something very much resembling it, as a basis for lasting peace and prosperity for Jewish and Arabs alike.

Arab Peace Initiative

To reconsider the what? Hand on heart, have you heard of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) before? If you have, chances are you’re either a fan of the region, or you work in international development. If you hadn’t, no worries, you’re just mainstream.  Should you have? Well, the API remains the single most significant and comprehensive peace initiative launched 12 years ago by 22 Arab heads of state, to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And yet, no one is talking about it.

And that is the problem Horowitz, Abdullah and their colleagues were trying to address at the event on 13 November. To their minds, whilst western governments have welcomed the initiative in principle, and many of them even adopted it as part of their Middle Eastern policy, EU and other leaders haven’t been actively promoting it on the international stage, let alone with their Israeli counterparts.  And that, they say, has to change if the world wants to see change in the Middle East.

“The only good idea”

Titled “Towards a comprehensive Middle East peace: Is the Arab Peace Initiative still a relevant basis?”, the conference was hosted by Sinn Fein MEP and Chair of the EP Delegation
to the Palestinian Legislative Council (D-PLC) Martina Anderson, and co-organised by a range of civil society organisations. Those included the Jerusalem-based Center for Democracy and Community Development, the Beersheva-based Negev Institute for Peace and Development (AJEEC-NISPED) and PAX from the Netherlands.

And the unequivocal answer to the question asked in the conference title, flowing forth from all sides of the hall, was a big resounding Yes.

Horowitz took a firm stand when he said “this initiative is a good idea. It’s the only good idea.” Vivian Silver, Board Member of the Negev Institute for Peace and
Development (AJEEC-NISPED)
said, if not endorsed, the API would become “an enormous colossal missed opportunity of unheard of proportions.” And she adds: ”We do not accept the narrative that we’ve been fed by the Israeli government that there are no partners for peace.”

Bit of background

The Arab Peace Initiative was first proposed in 2002, at the Beirut Summit of the Arab League by then-Crown Prince, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and unanimously adopted by all 22 Arab League members. It was then re-endorsed at the Riyadh Summit in 2007, and again at more recent summits after the Arab spring. The initiative aims at ending the Arab–Israeli conflict, and offers Israel a normalization of relations with all 22 Arab countries, in exchange for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories, based on the pre-1967
armistice lines. It furthermore allows for the option of negotiated land swaps and a “just” and mutually “agreed” compromise solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The API has been accepted by the EU, the UN, the Quartet, and, more recently also by the US as a possible basis of their Middle East policy. And, just a few weeks ago, “in what appears to be the largest-ever joint protest by senior Israeli security personnel, a group of 106 retired army generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners” have followed course. As Israeli daily Haaretz informs us, the 106 Israelis have signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to “initiate a diplomatic process” based on a regional framework for peace with the Palestinians, thereby referring to the API (Haaretz, 3 November 2014).

Lack of leadership

And yet, and spectacularly so, ordinary Israelis “are not aware of the initiative”, says Horowitz. Mainly because successive Israeli governments have at best rejected it, and, at worst, outright ignored it. Significantly, the main message of those recent signatories was that Israel has “the strength and the means to reach a two-state solution that doesn’t entail a security risk,” and that it hadn’t managed to reach an agreement yet because of “weak leadership.”

And that lack of leadership is the gap that Horowitz, Abdullah and their colleagues want the EU to plug. Or, to kick-start plugging. Until the Initiative takes on a life of its own, and the Israeli leadership takes over.

“The EU’s role is to help the Israeli government and press explain things to the Israeli citizens,” maintains Horowitz, adding that such interventions would fall onto
fertile ground. “The Israeli population wants peace as much as everybody else”, but they are not aware of their options. “People don’t know. They need to be told.” And: “we’ve seen in the past that whenever there’s been political will, the general public has gone along.”

Vivian Silver speaks of polls according to which 76% of the Israeli population would actually be ready to accept a solution based on the API if adequately explained. “If only the government were leading, the general public would follow,“ she concludes.

No longer just an Arab initiative

All participants want greater EU involvement. “We, Israelis and Palestinians, are here to ask you, the EU, to support us to bring the API back onto the table, as we can do that only with outside help,” says Vivian Silver. “Please don’t be just spectators from the side, but please get involved,” says Nitzan Horowitz. And he even tells us how we could do that: “Join the API talks, and nominate an EU facilitator!”

All participants want a regional approach. “The API is no longer just a Middle Eastern or Arab initiative. It is now an international initiative”, says Walid Saleem, director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development in Jerusalem.

“The API is the only solution, now that the bilateral track is blocked” and, to overcome this impasse, “we need a regional approach including our Arab neighbours, the EU and the US”, concludes Horowitz.

Urgency

And there is this sense of urgency. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore,” say Ashraf Khatib and Omar Shihabi from the Palestinian Negotiation Affairs Unit. “The occupation has lasted 47 years and we demand its end now,” they affirm.

“This initiative will not be on the table forever,” says Horowitz. “Especially if we’re now entering a period of time of increased violence again.” And, not seizing the moment would be “a tragic missed opportunity of historical proportions,” he adds.

According to Abdullah, a seasoned diplomat who fondly remembers his childhood days in pre-1948 Jerusalem, “we’re now at a crossroads. The status quo is not an option; it keeps everyone in fear, despair and frustration. We need a third party to convince the Israeli government to partner with us. – For all of us. And we have to act now before the momentum is lost.”

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amnon Reshef, the former Armored Corps commander who initiated the letter signed by the 106 Israeli army generals, told Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that he was “tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years, instead of a genuine effort to adopt the Saudi initiative.”

Opportunity

Talking about momentum, Horowitz maintains that “there may be a window of opportunity in Israel soon.” He goes on to explain that “it is quite possible that there will
be early elections leading to the formation of a pro-peace government.” And, “once this happens, we will need your help in a more vigorous way!”

Christian Berger, Head of the EEAS Directorate for North Africa and the Middle East, sees another opportunity in the emergence of ISIS, which, he says,
provides Israelis and other nations in the region with a common enemy. This, he stresses, “could be a huge opportunity to form new alliances, and give new
impetus to the API.” Others echo this and say that this new situation “may well facilitate dialogue and negotiations between Israel and its neighbours.”

Last, but not least, there’s Federica Mogherini, the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who has made
it her personal challenge to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of her mandate. That gives us five years. That means that we should start now.

When, if not now?

Marina Anderson MEP concludes the conference by saying that “the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome,” suggesting that the Israeli government, and the world, should try something new now.

Emphasizing that this should all be embedded within a regionally or even globally-backed security framework, which would safeguard the rights of all sides. “We either win together, or we lose together”, she concludes.

Abdullah offered a view of a brighter future: “I’m a Jerusalemite. And I still remember how, as a boy, in the 1930s, I would switch off the lights for my Jewish neighbours on Friday nights when they were celebrating Shabbat. We all helped each other. And we could go back to that.”

And musing over that possibility, as if he clearly saw it in his inner eye, he reaffirmed that “Yes, that can come again. When the Israeli feels that he is free from
fear. And when the Palestinian feels that he is free from occupation.”

Shorter version republished by Cafe Babel

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