Secretary of State John Kerry returned home [June 29] after yet another round of Sisyphean efforts to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It remains unclear whether Kerry still believes a breakthrough that will ultimately lead to a diplomatic agreement is even feasible, but it looks like Palestinian Chairman Abu Mazen is quite pessimistic. Acting out of sheer desperation, the Palestinian Authority chairman has spent the last few months tackling the problem by waging an information campaign in the Israeli streets. In keeping with that, he decided to create a Palestinian Committee for Interaction to initiate meetings with Israelis, where the other side — his side — could present its views. This was, in effect, intended to be a practical response to the many people in Israel, who claim that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and that Abu Mazen is the real obstacle.
The story of this committee could serve as an allegory for the diplomatic stagnation in the region over the past few years. The Supreme Steering Committee is headed by Muhammed Madani, a member of the PLO’s Central Committee. Other members of the committee include millionaire Munib al-Masri, Hanan Ashrawi and others.
One member of the Committee for Interaction explained the committee's importance to Al-Monitor. “The goal is to begin a dialogue with various politically oriented groups in Israel, and not just with the left or the peace bloc. Quite the contrary,” he explained. “It is intended to approach the Israeli right and center specifically, and to try to explain to the citizens of Israel what the Palestinian position is, what the principles of the Arab Peace initiative are, and why we now have a golden opportunity to reach a peace agreement, before it is too late.” As for the timing, the same source says that Abu Mazen has concluded that in the absence of a peace process with Israel, there are hardly any interactions or real encounters with Israelis. This leaves the Israeli public to feed off the manipulative spinning of stories by political factors in Israel, who distort the real picture in order to promote their own interests.
The plan was that the members of the Palestinian committee would conduct meetings with Israelis, initiate evenings devoted to dialogue in Israel, and meet with Israeli academics and artists in an effort to reach most of the Israeli public. Their goal was to reach a public that was in no way exposed to the mood and trends in the Palestinian street, and was limited to the secondhand accounts provided by politicians and the media.
This committee may have had all the best intentions behind it, but like the negotiations themselves, the implementation and fulfillment of the committee’s recommendations have been stuck in a quagmire for the past half year.
The committee was first established in December 2012, under the leadership of the aforementioned Muhammed Madani — but guess what! Mr. Madani does not speak Hebrew! Actually, he doesn’t speak English either, so there are inherent problems both in communicating with him and in his own understanding of Israeli society. And that’s putting it mildly. It is worth noting too that the Central Committee of the Fatah consists of eighteen members, of which at least five speak fluent Hebrew, having learned it in Israeli prisons.
In any event, the Supreme Steering Committee has spent the past half-year preparing working papers and programs. It has also sent out initial feelers to Israeli peace activists, who, as we already mentioned, don’t need much convincing. But before they even launched their campaign to convince the Israeli public of their cause, they were confronted with another unfortunate fact: the economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority prevents them from carrying out the programs that appear on paper. Nor do the resignations of Prime Ministers Salam Fayyad and his successor Hani Hamdallah help them implement this idea. And so it is becoming quite clear that having ideas and goals is all well and good, but there is no money for interactions with Israelis. No money, no interactions. In other words, there is no way for them to explain to Israelis that they may actually have a partner for peace.
Anyone looking for the light at the end of this tunnel can be comforted by the fact that Abu Mazen really is interested in dialogue with Israelis. Anyone looking for ways to criticize him can take the way that this committee was run as an allegory for his ultimate helplessness.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just ask Kerry; he can testify to that from his own firsthand experience.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas.
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