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As talks begin, Palestinians reach out to Israel

Published: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 9:37 p.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinians have traditionally shown little affection for Israeli politicians. These days, however, they are reaching out to their adversaries in an attempt to jump-start recently renewed peace efforts.

Hoping to persuade skeptical Israeli decision makers that they are serious about peace, leading Palestinian politicians have been holding a series of meetings with their Israeli counterparts. The meetings have taken place in Europe, in Israel's parliament and next week, at the Palestinian government headquarters in the West Bank.

Mohammed al-Madani, who is organizing the effort, said the Palestinians realized they need to take a new approach after watching Israeli governments build Jewish settlements on the lands the Palestinians seek for their future state. The settlements, he said, are destroying hopes for peace.

"Therefore we decided to address the Israeli decision makers and shapers of public opinion to shake things up," he said. "The two-state solution is the only possible, doable choice for both peoples."

Al-Madani heads the Palestinian Outreach Committee to the Israeli Society, a government-backed group that was formed last year after the U.N. General Assembly, over Israeli objections, recognized Palestine as a non-member state. Senior Palestinian officials, including members of President Mahmoud Abbas' inner circle, sit on the committee.

Last year's U.N. vote sent already strained Palestinian relations with Israel tumbling to a new low, with Israel retaliating with additional settlement plans and the Palestinians threatening to use their new upgraded status to pursue sanctions and war crimes charges against Israel.

After months of prodding by the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians last month reopened their first substantive peace negotiations in nearly five years.

While previous rounds of peace talks, particularly in the 1990s, generated widespread hope and optimism, the current round has created little excitement. After so many years of mistrust, failure and bouts of violence, neither side seems to be optimistic that the latest talks, expected to last nine months, will be successful.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for their state. But as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Palestinians fear time is running out to divide the land between two states. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the settlements. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli peace advocates say the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to preserve Israel's character as a democracy with a Jewish majority. The alternative, they say, is a single state in which Arabs, with their higher birthrate, will one day outnumber Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the idea of a Palestinian state. But he has continued to expand Jewish settlements and refused to commit to the broad territorial concessions the Palestinians seek.

In July, the Palestinians hosted dozens of activists from Netanyahu's hard-line Likud Party, as well as Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party whose leaders frequently take tough positions toward the Palestinians.

"Our constant message to the Israelis is the only solution is the two-state solution, and this solution is in the interests of both peoples, not only the Palestinians," said Nidal Fuqaha, director of the Palestinian Peace Coalition and a member of the committee.

Earlier this month, five centrist Israeli lawmakers met in Budapest with a Palestinian delegation that included top members of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and a member of his negotiating team.

"We didn't negotiate, of course. We talked and got to meet each other," said Boaz Toporovsky, a member of the centrist Yesh Atid who participated in the two-day gathering. Yesh Atid is a partner in Netanyahu's coalition.

Israelis talked about their experiences coping with suicide bombs and wars, while Palestinians talked about the hardships of living under Israeli occupation.

"We established a good connection," he said. "We understood the hard life the Palestinians are having. They understood the difficulties we are having. When you meet the other side, this is important." He said that the newfound trust could be important if any peace agreement goes to a vote in parliament.

In another recent meeting, a group of Palestinian officials traveled to Israel's Knesset, or parliament, as guests of the newly formed "Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict." For the first time in years, a Palestinian flag was displayed in the parliament building.

Ashraf Ajrami, a former Cabinet minister who was among the Palestinian participants, said he was surprised by how far Israelis and Palestinians have drifted from one another.

In the early days of peace efforts 20 years ago, there was frequent interaction between the sides. But there has been little contact since the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 2000. Although the violence has subsided, mistrust lingers.

"The long disconnect between us and the Palestinians has created huge gaps. There are too many Knesset members who don't understand our real position," Ajrami said. "By these discussions and meetings, we have made a breakthrough with the right-wing and religious camp."

Next Tuesday, the Palestinians plan on holding their most ambitious event yet. Abbas is to host roughly 12 Israeli lawmakers at his West Bank offices in Ramallah. The gathering is a response to the recent meeting at the Israeli parliament.

"It shows [Abbas] has a real will to talk and sees in himself a partner and therefore we immediately accepted the invitation," said Hilik Bar, a member of the dovish Labor party who leads the new parliamentary caucus.

Though the agenda of the meeting was not known, he said it would give a "backwind" to the negotiations. "It strengthens trust, discussion and dialogue between the sides," he said.

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Josef Federman and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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