Fresh Ideas, New Perspectives: Israeli - Palestinian Dialogues Led by Women
This event, cosponsored with the Initiative for Inclusive Security, featured members of the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace.
Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, Founder and Director, Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling in East Jerusalem
Colette Avital, Member of the Knesset, Labor Party, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset
Naomi Chazan, Professor of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Emeritus); Head of the School of Government and Society, Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo
Amal Khreisheh, General Director, Palestinian Working Women, Society for Development (PWWSD); Director, Democratic Activists
Jessica Neuwirth, President, Equality Now (USA)
Jessica Neuwirth provided a brief background on the formation of the International Women's Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace (IWC), which is comprised of twenty Israeli women, twenty Palestinian women, and twenty women from other parts of the world. Together, these women represent a broad spectrum, including individuals working at the community level to those holding high offices in government. Panelists maintained that the IWC's membership and the role of its members were unaffected by the election of Hamas. Rather, they noted that some of the more moderate members of Hamas maintained dialogue with the IWC, and that the International Women's Commission is open to all women who subscribe to the IWC's Charter. In terms of strategic prioritization, panelists noted that the IWC's first priority is to reach decision-makers. They also hope to spread their message from one community to the next, including the organized Jewish community in the United States.
Naomi Chazan emphasized the IWC members' commitment to "speak as one voice" about the common vision of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel that would fulfill the needs and rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. She analyzed the present situation between Israelis and Palestinians by addressing four topics: current challenges, opportunities embedded in those challenges, time required for taking advantage of those opportunities, and proposed next steps under the circumstances. According to Chazan, challenges stem from the Palestinian side, the Israeli side, and the international community. She identified three possibilities for dealing with Hamas: attempt to minimize the power of Hamas by subjecting the Palestinian population to boycotts; attempt to transform Hamas; or attempt to take advantage of the political co-habitation of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas. The first option, according to Chazan, is by far the least desirable because it punishes all Palestinians, and could boomerang into a greater backing for Hamas leadership in Palestine and the entire region. The second option is unrealistic and is unlikely to result in change. The third and most rational option involves recognizing that it is possible and necessary to maintain constant dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas and to demand that Hamas uphold its promises. Chazan expressed great hope that Mahmoud Abbas would reach an agreement with Israel that could then be brought to a referendum and approved by the seventy percent of Palestinians who support negotiations and a two-state solution with Israel.
Chazan pointed out that the recent Israeli elections and resulting lack of a clear majority mandate for any political party has produced acrimonious coalition negotiations. The government's reference to establishing the permanent borders of Israel during this term have also hinted strongly at the notion that Israel is willing to pursue this task unilaterally. Chazan expressed the International Women's Commission's strong opposition to unilateral action on the part of Israel, noting that such measures would not address the crux of the problem: sovereignty for both sides. Today's opportunities for conflict resolution include an Israeli government committed to exploring the possibility of negotiations before embarking on a unilateral path; Hamas giving the green light to Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel regarding the possibility of a referendum if negotiations with Israel are successful; and the international community's and the Quartet's unwavering commitment to negotiations for a two-state solution. In light of these opportunities, Chazan conveyed a sense of urgency, noting that "at the utmost, there is now one year and no longer than that." Ideally, Chazan would like to see the development of a visible and tangible amelioration of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank; exploration of the possibility of reinforcing moderate forces on both sides who are truly committed to peace; and identification and expansion of peace pockets such as the IWC.
Amal Khreisheh reported that the International Women's Commission (IWC) began work with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Israelis in the Knesset last November, and with the Europeans in Brussels last December, in an attempt to bring the concepts of human rights, equality, and gender to the negotiation table. Currently, the IWC is working with the United Nations in the American arena. She observed that the Palestinian people voted for Hamas in order to vocalize their frustration with the failure of the peace process and with domestic problems such as corruption and the breakdown of law and order. She emphasized that women are the greatest victims of the conflict and that there is no hope of changing this reality until there is a just peace. She also underlined that most Palestinians accept living side-by-side with Israel.
Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas emphasized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists on personal and political levels and at the core of both societies. Although most Palestinians and Israelis favor a two-state solution, there are varying definitions of boundaries, the future of the settlements, the sharing of Jerusalem, the refugee issue, and security questions. According to the IWC members, steps are being taken to clarify positions regarding these details. The public is being educated about the notion that a two-state solution must be viable and just in order to be effective, and the content of past blueprints such as the Geneva Initiative hold large support. Shamas noted that negotiators cannot and must not separate themselves from the agendas and sentiments of communities they represent. Therefore, a dedicated, proactive, and less emotionally-involved third party is crucial for the peace process to continue.
Colette Avital emphasized that the basic security platform of the Israeli government includes a negotiated peace. However, if the peace process does not occur within a reasonable amount of time, the Israeli government will embark on its policy of unilateralism. Therefore, her aspiration and that of the Israeli Labor Party is to explore and encourage the option of negotiations, despite the current developments in the Palestinian Authority. Avital considers Mahmoud Abbas a partner and believes that a coalition of moderate forces can be created—not just inside Palestine, but extending to other regional players including Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan. According to Avital, violence has subsided and the commitment on the part of the Palestinians is symbolic of their readiness to negotiate. She recommended that the Bush Administration support actions that might lead to negotiations with full backing and without further delay—the essence of the second stage of the Road Map. Lessons learned during the Oslo Accords include the fact that the involvement of a limited number of leaders failed to create the necessary atmosphere that could offer civil society strategies to support the peace process. Avital called for a campaign to educate and enable Israeli civil society to participate in the peace process. She emphasized that an unwavering seventy percent of Israeli society believes that the way to achieve security is a two-state solution. Yet, although goodwill exists, public education efforts could better address the history of mistrust resulting from the Intifada and the Israeli concept of lacking a partner for peace.