On the eve of President Barack Obama’s arrival for a three-day visit to our historic and troubled neighborhood, about 15 Israelis and Palestinians gathered together to talk about their expectations, hopes and recommendations for the future. The meeting took place, symbolically enough, at the Notre Dame Center, literally on the border between West and East Jerusalem, opposite New Gate in the walls of the Old City.

A state of urgency

To begin with, the bottom line of the three-hour discussion – their joint message to President Obama – was that it is essential to move forward towards a two-state solution before it is too late. All of the participants felt that it was vital that the President understand the urgency of the situation. There was a general feeling among the participants that if no progress is made in the foreseeable future, a two-state option may no longer remain on the table, though a one-state option is not viable either.   All that will be left is a recipe for renewed violence, frustration and dangerous regional instability, which could endanger not only Israel but the entire world.

The Palestinian participants included senior Fatah, PLO and PA representatives, while the Israelis included veteran diplomats, academics and civil society representatives.  Interestingly members of the new Knesset from both the opposition and the coalition parties wanted to participate, but were unable to do so because of the Knesset session.

The importance of the Arab Peace Initiative

Many of the Israelis and Palestinians at the Notre Dame gathering also participated earlier in the morning at a similar encounter at the YMCA in West Jerusalem devoted to promoting the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as a basis for a comprehensive Middle East Peace. And according to reports in today’s newspapers, we know that Secretary of State John Kerry intends to use the API, originally launched at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002, and ratified many times since, including after the Arab Spring broke out, as one of the cornerstones for American policy for promoting progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

The Arab Peace Initiative is an offer on behalf of the 22 states of the Arab World, backed by the 57 Muslim states – including Iran – for peace and normal relations with Israel, in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a mutually agreed upon solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. The importance of the API was also stressed at the afternoon meeting.

Expectations from Obama’s visit

The meeting at Notre Dame was held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that it was a free and open discussion, with no written summary or quotes allowed. I am therefore free only to mention my own contribution to the discussion:

1. Concerning the Obama visit, while one of the Israeli participants said cynically that its only contribution would be towards Israeli tourism, since the President was coming with an entourage of 350 people, in my view it is a preparatory stage for the real work, which will be carried out by Kerry during the next six months. Thus the current visit is essentially preparation to set the stage for serious work towards reviving an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

2. Contrary to pessimistic assessments about the new Israeli government’s desire to be an active partner in advancing the peace process, in addition to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her party, many of the MKs in Yesh Atid have a clear commitment to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

3. While we all know that continued settlement expansion undermines the prospects for peace and a two-state solution, now is the time to put the cost of the settlements on the Israeli agenda. Yair Lapid based his campaign on the slogan “Where’s the money?” and so far has only answered with challenging the Haredim/ultra-Orthodox extortion of government funds. Well, there is another sector which receives a disproportionate percentage of funding compared to the average Israeli – the settlements. The time is ripe to emphasize the cost of the settlements, and the way in which they are an obstacle to peace, security and continued prosperity for the average Israeli.

4. And finally, if the State of Israel is the focal point for the Jewish right to national self-determination, just as the future Palestinian state will be the focal point for the Palestinian right to national self-determination, then liberal Jews around the world have the right and even duty to speak out about the future direction of the country, along the lines of the appeal by internationally renowned Tel Aviv University Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, “If you care about Israel, silence is no longer an option!”

Shalom Means Peace!

Alongside the two meetings I have mentioned, President Obama was also greeted today by two ads in the Israeli press. One, organized by J Street, the American pro-Israel-pro-peace lobby, and signed by many prominent Israelis, welcomed the President, and emphasized that “true security for the State of Israel cannot be based only on military might.  Israel must arrive at a true peace with its Palestinian neighbors, based upon a two-state solution.” The other ad, also welcoming the President, and signed by even more prominent Israelis, was headlined “Shalom means Peace!” and it emphasized the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace.

President Obama has now landed in Israel. I was very pleased to hear President Shimon Peres emphasize the importance of peace and a two-state solution in his opening remarks. I was also happy to hear, after the playing of the two national anthems, the famous pre-1967 song by Naomi Shemer, Machar (Tomorrow), with its dream of peace, of the day when the soldiers can removed their uniforms, and the belief that all of this will come about, if not tomorrow, than the next day.