By Michael Felsen
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts: As we enter 2011, there seems to be little cause for celebration about prospects for peace in the Middle East, especially following the breakdown of US-brokered negotiations upon Israel’s resumption of West Bank settlement construction in September.
Since then, US efforts to restart the talks, including a generous package of sweeteners to induce a further Israeli settlement-building moratorium, have failed. The Palestinian leadership has consistently argued that it cannot negotiate while settlement construction continues in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that will likely be part of a future Palestinian state. Meanwhile, settlement construction proceeds apace. Hence, despite last summer’s hopeful beginnings, movement in the direction of peace has come to a screeching halt.
But for those who care about the survival of Israel as the secure and democratic homeland of the Jewish people, and the establishment of a peaceful, viable Palestinian state — gloom and doom saying is unacceptable. Rather than ride the downward spirals of hatred, distrust and recrimination — the Israeli and Palestinian peoples must find those paths that point forward out of the morass. And there are, indeed, signposts that help show the way.
One such beacon in the fog has been the Geneva Initiative. This is the joint enterprise of a group of visionary Israelis and Palestinians who, beginning in 2003 and continuing to this day, have crafted consensual solutions — building on the “Clinton parameters” (a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with minimal land swaps, a shared/divided Jerusalem, limited right of Palestinian return to Israel and security arrangements) and similar rubrics — to effectively end all outstanding issues in the conflict. Consonant with its view that the interests of Israelis and Palestinians are best served by direct negotiations designed to reach a realistic, dignified, and sustainable two-state solution — as embodied in the model Geneva Accord — the Initiative this past month orchestrated a rare and remarkable event.
In mid-December, at the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hosted 100 Israeli legislators, activists, and journalists. Just the fact that this diverse Israeli delegation ventured to Ramallah and was hosted by Abbas is remarkable.
Knesset members from the Labor party (that sits in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition), Kadima and Meretz attended, as well as a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, four ultra-Orthodox Jewish journalists and former Israeli Defense Forces officers, some of whom had participated in the siege against Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at the same site. They were joined by dozens of senior figures from Fatah and the PLO. According to press reports, the Palestinian president told the visitors: “We are ready to conclude peace, to have our state in the 1967 borders, with agreed (land) swaps, to have security, a third party in our territories for a while, agreed upon,” he said. “We will find solutions to the other remaining … core issues.” He also asked his visitors for help:
“We do not want to miss this opportunity,” he said. “Please help us not to miss it”.
Amram Mitzna, the former Labor Party leader who led the Israeli delegation to the meeting in Ramallah, responded: “I know that there is a partner for bringing the history of bloodshed to an end.”
Needless to say, this two-hour meeting at the Mukata did not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s easy to dismiss the meeting as window-dressing and to focus instead on the current obstacles. But no less than the Palestinians, Israel needs help in not missing this opportunity. Each day of Israel’s continued occupation, without progress toward a just and lasting resolution of the conflict, increases Israel’s isolation and places its Jewish-majority democracy in further jeopardy. At the same time, the Palestinian people are waiting for Abbas to deliver. For both sides, the clock is ticking. In the face of rampant skepticism, the Initiative’s vision that peace is both possible and necessary is indispensable.
Negotiations must resume, with a re-committed Obama administration redoubling its efforts to broker a resolution, beginning with borders and security, and ultimately including a comprehensive Geneva-like package. At last week’s cabinet meeting, Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer acknowledged that “starting peace negotiations is in the interest of Israel and the Middle East…We must do everything to reach a dialogue with the Palestinians.”
And from dialogue, prompt resolution. Because failure, for either side, is not a viable option.
Michael Felsen is an attorney and President of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year-old Jewish secular communal organization dedicated to promoting Jewish education, culture and social justice. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).