It could have gone either way, but Palestinian participants say the July 31 meeting between a handful of members of the “Civil Dialogue Committee” appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Knesset “Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, went even better than expected.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Political Committee and the Fatah bloc in the [non-functioning] Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC] said he was relieved that there’d been no raucous denunciation in Israel either of the meeting itself, or of the Palestinian flag displayed, next to Israel’s, at the front of the room. He said he’d been worried that the caucus might “be subject to criticism — for hosting terrorists”.
“The substance was more important than seeing the Palestinian flag in the Knesset”, Dr. Abdullah said – but he nonetheless said it was indeed the first time the Palestinian flag had been displayed inside the Knesset, during a meeting.
Abdullah, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council who also works on the Fatah Foreign Relations Committee with Nabil Shaath, said that “every MK who spoke in the meeting was in favor of the two-state solution”. A Times of Israel account of the meeting is posted here.
Mohammad Madani, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, its highest decision-making body, was named by Abbas to head the “Civil Dialogue Committee”. He said the meeting had been “fruitful”, and added that “we were very happy to see MKs who stand behind the two-state solution”.
Abdullah conceded that “We are sensitive to the ‘normalization’ issue”, but he said that “we know that when we meet, they are the occupiers and we are the occupied. We were not there to tolerate the occupation — but to tell them it must end”.
What is important, Abdullah said, is to meet and talk seriously, and to give support to negotiations.
The Palestinian “Civil Dialogue Committee” was formed by Abbas on 4 December 2012 — following several previous high-profile meetings initiated by Israeli groups which were held in the presidential office at the Ramallah Muqata’a. The Committee was given “a new task of reaching out to Israeli society”, Abdullah said.
Abdullah said he understood the idea for the Knesset caucus came from “some NGOs working to promote the Arab Peace Initiative”, which some Knesset members also saw as being in Israel’s interest. “We thought the creation of caucus was a good sign”, Abdullah said, and first contact was made — in support of “a two-state and regional solution”.
“We want to encourage you”, the Palestinians apparently told the Knesset caucus headed by Labor MK Hilik Bar. Meanwhile, in a February interview with the Jerusalem Post soon after the latest Israeli government was formed, MK Bar urged “immediate, unconditional talks with the Palestinians”, and added that “There were prime ministers who tried and failed but [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu did not even try”. The JPost profile of MK Bar is published here.
“We wanted to encourage them to believe that they are doing the right thing for their people, as we are doing for ours”, said Abdullah. “It’s in our common interest, Israelis and Palestinians, to work hard to achieve a two-state solution, in accordance with international law and United Nations resolutions”.
“Listen, there is turmoil in the region”, he said, “everybody is busy now, but for how long will it continue. When it calms down, Netanyahu should be sure no one will abandon the Palestinians. On the contrary, they will line up with the Palestinians”.
Dr. Abdullah said he mentioned, in the Knesset caucus meeting, that the Fatah Revolutionary Council recently held a memorial service for its former member, Ilan Halevi, who died of illness on 10 July. “I told them that over 100 Palestinians and some Israelis attended”, Abdullah said, including Halevi’s daughter Miriam. Some Israelis may regard Halevi’s embrace of the Palestinian cause as unbecoming or worse, Dr. Abdullah said, “But if they don’t like him, ok. We love him, and we consider him a Palestinian”.
Dr. Abdullah was called to the Muqata’a the day after the caucus meeting to brief Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the event. He was happy, Abdullah reported. And how did Abbas react when he learned that some MKs have already accepted the Palestinian delegation’s invitation to come to Ramallah for a reciprocal meeting? “He was glad about that”, Abdullah said. Where would that meeting take place? Abdullah hesitated. “It depends on how many accept to come. If a few, it will be in one place. If more, it will be in another place”.
The PLC has not met since 2007, and although its building not far from the center of Ramallah has been maintained, with minimal staff, the main meeting hall has been empty and unused
Mohammad Madani said the details were still being arranged, but added that “We had contacts with some of our interlocutors today [Tuesday 6 August], and we’ll be setting a date in the next one to two weeks”. It would have to be after the upcoming Eid holidays — and possibly even after the Jewish holidays coming up in September.
When it did function, the Israeli Government refused to recognize the PLC, Abdullah admitted, but now, he insisted, “when we meet abroad – at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Middle East Committee, for example, or at the Euro-Med Parliamentary Association – we meet as equals”.
So many of the Hamas-affiliated MPs had been detained and jailed in Israel, after winning the last elections [to four-year terms] in January 2006, and the Palestinian political paralysis caused by Fatah-Hamas rivalry was so great that, by 2007, the PLC was unable to convene a quorum for a meeting.
As Israelis asked, in the Knesset caucus meeting, if the Israeli flag will be treated in the same way in Ramallah as the Palestinian flag was in the Knesset — and if one third of the PLC would turn out to receive the Israeli MKs in Ramallah — one Fatah cadre in Ramallah said, “Is that what they would like? Ok, then we will ask for the Hamas members to come, so the Israeli MKs can see all our MPs”.