Young Leaders' Seminar in Nicosia

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Together with Geneva Initiative and the Palestinian Peace Coalition, KAS organized a group of Israeli and Palestinian young leaders from the political and economic fields to Nicosia, Cyprus, to participate in a 3 days dialogue-seminar about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the two-state solution.

On June 8-10th KAS and the Geneva Initiative took a group of Israeli and Palestinian young leaders from the political and business sectors to a three-day seminar in Nicosia, Cyprus. The seminar focused on the challenges to the peace process and questioned how the two peoples can promote the two-state solution. 5 Israelis and 5 Palestinians have participated in the seminar. Additionally, an Israeli and a Palestinian speaker enriched the discussions with knowledge and information from their substantial experience. Moreover, the location of the seminar gave the participants a glimpse at the Cypriot conflict and the life in a divided city.

After all the participants arrived in the hotel in Nicosia, the group gathered in the conference room for opening remarks of the Geneva Initiative representative who denoted the current saddening events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and emphasized that without negotiations these events will not disappear. Dr. Alexander Brakel greeted the participants and honored them for their active role in promoting peace in times when it seems hopeless. After the two speakers introduced themselves and their long and continuous involvement in the peace process, each participant in the group said few words about him/herself and the reason for their participation. After the introduction session, the speakers opened a discussion about the current events and their implications. The Israeli speaker said that in the end of the tunnel there will be peace in form of 2 states but he cannot see it in the coming future. He suggested reducing the aspirations for peace in the meantime. The struggle at the moment should be to maintain the feasibility of the two-state solution. He presented several scenarios that can change the current dynamics and revive the peace process such as: Elections in Israel, Netanyahu resignation/indictment, American Peace Deal, Security crisis. His prediction was that in case of a peace agreement, Israel will have to evacuate at least 130,000 settlers, which might lead to a civil war in Israel and therefore there is no Israeli leader who is ready to take this risk. In this case the situation will either continue as it is, or it will become a one state (democratic but non-Jewish) or and Apartheid state. The Palestinian speaker stated that after 25 years of the Oslo-process, 15 years to the Geneva Initiative and 30 years of the PLO recognition in UN resolution 242, peace is not in sight. The occupation became wiser and deeper. During the peace process Hamas was a weak movement, but after Israel assassinated Yahya Ayyash (1996) it became stronger and after Israel pulled out of Gaza (2005) their slogan was “5 years of resistance defeated 10 years of negotiations”. But the good news is that Hamas of today is much more pragmatic than before and that Israel needs to push the moderate side within Hamas forward. He argued that peace wasn’t achieved in the past because the Israeli establishment was always assured that the Palestinians will be satisfied with what has been offered to them. The direct political goals at the moment should be stopping the construction of settlements and end the inner-Palestinian division.

After a coffee break, each group depicted its national narrative as it is seen by the main-stream. The Israeli group claimed that according to the Israeli majority, there is no partner on the other side and that solving the conflict is not that urgent. Life in Israel is relatively good and most of the Israelis have never been in the West-Bank and the Gaza-Strip and therefore get their information only from the media. Many believe that the Palestinians want to throw the Jews away and establish a state all over the land. If a Palestinian state will be established then it will support terror and therefore most of the Israelis are against the two-state solution. Jerusalem stands in the Israeli consensus as the undivided capital of Israel.

The Palestinians portrayed their narrative as follows; Palestinians must have a right of movement which includes their right to access Jerusalem, as it is the Palestinian capital. Palestine must have an independent economy which is not the case now. There are 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. They all have families and cutting their salaries will stop them from getting medicine and education. In Palestinian eyes, the prisoners are either heroes or miserable people who have lost their lives. The Palestinian refugees must return as it is their right to go back as part of their identity. Jerusalem is heart of the Palestinian cause. In Gaza there is no clean water and no electricity. The Israeli speaker concluded by saying that each side has its own narrative and we don’t need to agree on it but we must understand the other side. After a session of Q&A and dinner the group has gathered next to the pool to get to know each other on a personal level. The group stayed together till late and went out together to the city.

On the second day, the Palestinian speaker opened the morning session with an historical overview about the Palestinian development regarding the two-state solution. He stressed that the Palestinians could make concessions in the past only from a position of power. According to his opinion, the Palestinian negotiators in the Geneva Initiative went too far for not ascribing any responsibility for Israel for the refugees’ problem and regarded it as one of the weaknesses of the initiative. He claimed that without Israel’s recognition and responsibility for the problem, the solution won’t be sustainable. As a positive ending remark he noted that unlike in the past, nowadays most Palestinian fractions recognize the need of a Palestinian state in the 67 borders.

The Israeli speaker continued the session with his assessment about the security and Gaza issues. He asserted the Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East and it is not under an existential threat. The security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority is excellent and most of the terror attempts are handled by the Palestinian security forces. Therefore, out of the four core-issues, the security one is the easiest. As evidence, Olmert-Abu-Mazen talks completed the security issue. The vast majority of Israeli security experts agree that the way to solve the problem is by 2 states. They believe that the situation will be improved by 2 states. The settlements add nothing to security, on the contrary. Security wise, for Israel, the situation in Gaza is much better now, without military and civil presence in Gaza, than before. Regarding the Jordan Valley, the Israeli interest according to this government is to control the valley also after a peace agreement but the Jordan Valley has no security significance.

The Palestinian speaker then gave his input to the discussion and underlined that the Palestinian issue has developed from a refugees and humanitarian case to a national one. However neglecting the refugees issue will not solve the problem and there will be no peace treaty without this element. Israel must apologize in order for the Palestinians to forgive. Regarding Gaza, he said that its growing population, without portable water and no living space will continue to cause Israel many concerns. On the other hand, Gaza is not only a failure of Israel but also of the Palestinians, Egypt and the International Community. In order to solve the problems there, the Palestinians must be united and the other players need to support its recovery.

Afterwards spoke the Israeli speaker again, this time about the issue of borders. He stated that the security fence became a fact and it will be changed according to a future peace agreement. Nonetheless 40% of the route of the fence hasn’t been yet built. If the route will be completed, 8.5% of Palestinian land will be on Israel’s side. In previous negotiations, Olmert offered Abu-Mazen 6.5% of the land to be swapped between Israel and the future Palestinian state. In the Geneva Initiative it was agreed that 2.7% of the land will be swapped. According to researches, the maximal potential land that Israel can swap is 4.5%. It is therefore to find a compromise between these numbers. He presumed that within a peace agreement 70% of Israeli settlers could remain on the Israeli side. That means that at least 130,000 settlers will have to be evacuated from the future Palestinian state. He believes that about a half of them will move willingly after an agreement will be signed.

After lunch, the group had a session of reflections and comments. They expressed their feelings and said that many crucial issues were discussed so far but it is important that each side will also discuss among itself. All participants uttered that they have learned a lot and to want to hear more from the other side. One of them said that because the people spoke from their hearts, it changed something in her. Still some mentioned that there is not enough time to discuss everything and to express themselves fully. When all participants were done reflecting on the seminar, Sertac Sonan, a Turkish-Cypriot PhD student, has given an historical introduction to the Cyprus-Conflict.

After a coffee-break, Dr. Alexander Brakel has given a presentation about the European a point of view of the conflict. He mentioned that the EU as an institution supports the two-state solution but as it consists of many countries, there is also a high variety in the states’ regard to Israel and Palestine. He alluded that the EU is the largest donor to Palestine and that it has increased its funds to UNRWA after the US decided to decrease its funds. Nonetheless, there is a fatigue after 25 years of no peace. The enthusiasm to reach a political settlement has faded. No one believes that peace is nearby. The growing fatigue is also a result of the internal European concerns and problems (Brexit, Euro-Crisis, Refugees, the Ukraine and Trump’s administration). Also the last 10-15 years have shown that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the center of the instability in the Middle-East. For Europe it means that this conflict is not the most urgent to deal with, especially if the EU wants to make an impact and to be successful. Moreover, the growing economic influence of Israel on the EU plays a role. Israel offers Europe High-Tech technologies and innovative power. The conclusion is therefore that the EU will not be the savior for Israel and the Palestinians because it has no enough power and will.

In the evening, the participants were confronted with different arguments that Israeli and Palestinian opponents to the two-state solution usually make. The participants tried to offer good answers to these arguments. After dinner the group went out to tour the city. In the morning there was a guided tour in both sides of the city with Sertac Sonan from the Turkish side and Gregoris Ioannou from the Greek side. Both of them gave a tour about history and life in the divided city of Nicosia.

After the tour and lunch the group had again time to express their reflections and utter their comments about the whole seminar. They mentioned that it is worthwhile to learn from the Cyprus case, to see where they used to be and where they are now. The participants shared their willingness to continue the meetings and dialogue with the other side. They also regarded it important to meet politicians and to talk with them about the negotiations. The last session dealt with the question how to move forward. One Palestinian said that they need to make a timeline to discuss points and to prepare them and find for them solutions. An Israeli said that the anti-normalization movement destroyed the peace camp. A Palestinian answered this that normalization is not the issue as they come communicate with the other side and not to become friends. Another Israeli agreed that the most important thing is to continue this communication. Another Palestinian stated that she came to strengthen partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians. An Israeli stressed that it is important not only to initiate more meetings but also to bring one or two more friends to these meetings. He continued that whoever came to this seminar should be proud of oneself and that their societies need to know about such events so it won’t stay in this room. Dr. Brakel concluded the seminar by saying that it is difficult to remain balanced in this conflict but it is very crucial to listen to the other side in order to gain knowledge and stay balanced. KAS relies on local partners and if they have creative ideas to promote peace, KAS could support them.

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Israel, July 31, 2018

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