Yachad/NIF conference by Jenni Frazer for JN March 7 2015
One of Israel’s leading lawyers, echoing Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan, put it simply: “It’s about the Occupation, stupid.” Daniel Seidemann, known as Mr Jerusalem, has a store of pithy one-liners with which to characterise the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
On Sunday, during a remarkable day-long London security conference held jointly by Yachad and the New Israel Fund, Mr Seidemann had ample opportunity to sum up the situation facing Israeli Jews and Palestinians. There were, he told the more than 250 participants, “cognitive barriers in Jerusalem like an electrified fence”, and Israel was “in the midst of a popular uprising the like of which we have not seen since 1967.”
And in case anyone was in any doubt about where he stood, Mr Seidemann added: “God bless [David] Cameron. He told Israelis the truth about the realities of the Occupation, and did exactly what was needed.” He, and other speakers, urged the international community to “lean on” Israel and warn it of the consequences of continuing to “manage the conflict”. As the president of the New Israel Fund, lawyer Talia Sasson, warned: “The so-called management of the conflict is a disaster for us Israelis.”
She added that the actions of the current government were “endangering the principles of the foundation of the state of Israel. We will lose legitimacy as a homeland for the Jewish people” .Addressing the delegates, Ms Sasson, a former adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declared: “You should raise your voices here and make a distinction between government and state.”
The nub of the conference, according to its organisers, was to open up discussion about the links between security and peace “Too often the debate has been reduced to ‘no peace because no security’, but we wanted to show that many of the people in charge of security have a much more realistic view of what is happening”.
Two of the most distinctive voices were those of Palestinians. Ashram Al-Ajrami, a prominent peace activist, is a former minister of Prisoner Affairs for the Palestinian Authority and also former director of Israeli Affairs at the Palestinian Information Ministry.
Entrepreneur Aziz Abu Sarah – a one-time self-confessed teenage rock-thrower and former Fatah organiser – is a National Geographic Explorer and a TED Fellow. With an Israeli Jewish partner, he runs Mejdi Tours in Jerusalem, offering “alternative” tours of Israeli and the Palestinian territories. “The greatest challenge to Israel,” he said, “is lack of vision. What is the plan, how are you moving forward? I would love to hear it, whatever it is. No-one is talking today of what to do with Gaza – not Israel, not Egypt, not even the Palestinian Authority. No-one is talking about issues of education and the lack of permits to build schools in east Jerusalem – and then Israel wonders why there are problems with what is being taught in Palestinian schools”.
Mr Abu Sarah’s message was one of acute disappointment, not only with Israel but also with the Palestinian Authority. And it was a message echoed by the diplomatic correspondent for Ha’aretz, Barak Ravid, who predicted that while Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas remained in office there would be no movement at all towards peace.
The two men were “mirror images” of each other, Mr Ravid declared. “Neither of them is willing to give an inch, and if they do anything it is only on their terms alone. There will not be any movement as long as both of them remain in power.” The present Israeli government, he said, was “totally controlled by the settler lobby – and there is no scenario that this government will do anything to move in the direction of a two-state solution.” On the Palestinian side he could only see “a totally defunct political system” in which there had been no elections since 2005. Nothing meaningful was likely to happen, Mr Ravid said, “in the next 10 or 20 years.”
Giving their view of the security situation were reserve and retired IDF officers such as MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former deputy commander of the Northern Command, Israela Oron, retired brigadier-general and former national security adviser to Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, and retired brigadier-general Gadi Zohar, now chairman of the Israel Council for Peace and Security.
On Monday, officials at the Israel and Palestine desks of the Foreign Office held meetings with Mr Zohar, Hebrew University Professor Matti Steinberg, Ms Sasson, and Dr Nimrod Goren, founder of Mitzvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. MK Eyal Ben Reuven briefed members of the Labour Friends of Israel.