Thirty-three Knesset members, or over one-quarter of the Knesset, showed up Wednesday morning to the parliament’s Galil Hall for an unprecedented meeting with Palestinian officials.
For the first time, the Knesset gathering saw the flag of Israel and that of the Palestinian Authority — which PA officials insist has become the State of Palestine — standing side by side in Israel’s parliament.
The gathering, which brought together the Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Dialogue Committee, was meant to fly another sort of flag, a show of widespread support for the new round of peace talks underway in Washington.
The 33 MKs in attendance represented parties that hold 77 seats in the Knesset, “a huge majority,” noted MK Hilik Bar, chair of the caucus and organizer of the gathering.
The tone was distinctly upbeat.
“We’re very optimistic about these talks, and about finding a solution along the 1967 lines. Israel will also gain relations with 57 Muslim countries,” said Mohammed Madani, the head of the Palestinian delegation, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and the official appointed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to lead a dialogue with Israeli civil society for the PA.
“It’s critical to unite the forces that support a fair peace,” Madani told the gathering of MKs, Palestinian officials and activists from One Voice and other advocacy groups. “A fair political solution is in all our interests, and that of our children.”
The Israeli speakers expressed optimism and a hope for achieving peace.
“I’ve walked too often in blood, and served most of my professional life in the jaws of the conflict. Yesh Atid,” he promised, “will support this peace,” former Jerusalem police chief and deputy finance minister Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) said.
“Only those who saw blood and the weeping of war understand the importance of peace,” said MK Benjamin “Fouad” Ben-Eliezer, a former IDF brigadier-general and defense minister.
Health Minister Yael German (Yesh Atid), formerly of Meretz, told the Palestinian officials she was eager to find new ways to partner with Palestinian health authorities.
Members from several parties promised their support for any final agreement, including the centrist Yesh Atid and the left-leaning Labor, Meretz and Hatnua factions. Representatives from ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the Arab Hadash and Balad parties also attended.
The Palestinian side, too, promised peace, but also took the opportunity to advocate for the Palestinian position in the talks. Madani urged that the talks be based on the 1967 borders, a position Israel has refused to accept.
But while Madani invited the MKs to Ramallah and agreed to fly both the Israeli and Palestinian flag during that visit, the delegation’s political adviser Elias Zananiri insisted that “for the Palestinians the Israeli flag represents occupation. First let us have a flag and we won’t have any problem waving yours.”
Perhaps the most conciliatory among the Palestinian speakers was former Palestinian Authority deputy foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who noted with gratitude the two flags standing side by side.
“I was born not far from here, in Katamon,” a west Jerusalem neighborhood, he told the gathering. “I remember as a child how I would help turn on the lights or buy some bread for a Jewish family observing the Sabbath.”
Describing the close relations he had with his Jewish neighbors, he urged a return to close ties between Jews and Arabs.
“West of the Jordan river there are two distinct peoples. Neither is going to leave. We must find an accommodation. We want to be free of occupation. We know the Israeli side is concerned about security. You want freedom from fear. Our leaders can find a way that gets both. Otherwise, Israel can’t be democratic. It is not in your interest to become a racist regime.”
The meeting lasted over an hour and a half, with dozens of speakers from among the gathered MKs and activists.
Minutes before the end, Ben-Eliezer said he envisioned a peace settlement in which there would be “two states, with a border but no fence, so we can visit each other and live together.”
The final speaker, Madani, praised the gathering. “We’re overwhelmed to see the Palestinian flag here, but despite all these symbols [of goodwill] we still have to note that the occupation remains. We must all join forces to create the motivation and understanding for peace on both sides.”