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I welcome the new Israeli government even though I know it will not renew the Israeli Palestinian peace process. This government will avoid any issue of controversy that could bring it down swiftly. There are enough areas of consensus that need to be worked on for the government to have its hands full and improve the lives of the Israeli public, including everyone – rightists, leftists, religious, Haredi, secular, and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is a unique opportunity to create a new type of public discourse based on inclusion rather than division.
There are sufficient political interests of each of the eight parties that compose this government to make the extra effort to keep the government together and the public will be the main beneficiary of those efforts. Even the challenge of developing a presenting a budget for the first time in years will be a considerable achievement and one that is extraordinarily urgent at this critical time.
Even if no direct Israeli Palestinian negotiations on permanent status issues will take place there is much that can be done to improve the political environment between Israel and the Palestinians and to renew contacts that have been dormant for most of the past 12 years of the Netanyahu regime. Those contacts include the renewal of relations between government ministries in Israel and those in Palestine.
Any future peace agreement must be based on cross-border cooperation and not on complete physical separation or divorce as many in Israel refer to our future with the Palestinians. There must be a renewal of contact between political leaders and elected officials on both sides. Here, the problem is that the elections that were scheduled to take place in Palestine for the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council were postponed by President Abbas because, as he stated, Israel did not provide an agreement for the elections to take place in Jerusalem for the 350,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Those elections would have been the first step towards the revival of Palestinian democracy. If they had taken place as scheduled, I believe that we would see a wide range of new faces, younger people and more women than ever in Palestine taking center stage in the Palestinian political arena.
Palestinians last held Parliamentary elections in 2006 and in 2007 President Abbas announced the annulment of the Legislative Council because of the Hamas takeover of Gaza. The removal of democratic elections in Palestine is a tragedy for the Palestinian people who deserve to elect their leaders. It is also a great challenge for any society to be able to identify the next generation of leaders.
Most of the 120 members of the Israeli Knesset have no regular ongoing contacts with Palestinians. From my 40-plus-years of experience working across conflict borders, I am 100% sure that personal relations are the key to developing political understandings that have the potential to lead to peace.
OF THE 120 members of Knesset, there are at least 70 who would positively respond to opportunities to meet discreetly with Palestinian political leaders and politicians. In the absence of new elected Palestinian representatives,
I would like to offer a kind of out-of-the-box idea and hope that some Palestinians will adopt it and take it forward.
This article will also appear in Arabic in the Al-Quds daily newspaper so Palestinians will have the opportunity to read my idea. My proposal is called the Council of the Top Five. There were 36 political parties registered to run in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections that were supposed to be held this past May. If a leading well-known Palestinian with credibility and legitimacy, someone such as Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, who was one of the top people on one of the party lists and the former President of Al-Quds University, was to convene a voluntary, non-statutory council assembled from the top five names of each of the registered political parties, an amazing group of Palestinians would be gathered.
This Council of the Top Five could serve as a kind of shadow representative body until the Palestinians finally convene their elections. This body may be without legal authority, but it would be able to claim wide public legitimacy and advance Palestinian interests vis-à-vis Israel and the rest of the world. There, of course, would be some parties or individuals who may not join in, but a sizable substantial group of Palestinians representing every political view and every geographic area of Palestine would be constituted in a way that would provide them with exposure to the Palestinian public and the world, and also be a target population for renewing discreet contacts with elected Israeli political representatives.
If Palestinian Legislative Council elections were to take place today, it is very likely that Hamas would come out on top with a large majority. That would be a distortion of Palestinian political thinking as it would be a direct result of the last Gaza war. For many years, I have said that there is a direct link between the force that Israel employs against Hamas and the strength and public support that Hamas gains from the use of Israel’s force against it. The harder Israel hits Gaza, the stronger Hamas becomes in the eyes of the public.
This is something very difficult for Israelis to grasp because Israeli logic perceives that the result of Israeli force on Gaza should lead to the weakening of Hamas. But Palestinian logic does not work that way, because Palestine is occupied and not free and the struggle for freedom increases as the result of the force used against it.
If elections had been held prior to the last war, I believe that there would have been a large plurality of non-Hamas political parties which would have won those elections. A lot of positive developments need to occur on the ground before we return to that possibility.
So with the negative dynamics regarding resolving the conflict on both sides, it is time for discreet behind-the-scenes work to take place to begin to rebuild contacts and to seek to develop some trust across the conflict lines so that in the not too distant future we can together – Israelis and Palestinians – rethink how we want to share this land that we both claim.
Gershon Baskin is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press. It is also available in Arabic and in Portuguese.