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The PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society normalises links under official cover

July 22, 2019 at 6:42 pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas participates in the Palestinian Central Council meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s National Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

While political relations between Palestine and Israel have officially been non-existent since the cessation of negotiations in April 2014, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continues to hold periodic meetings with various Israeli officials and bodies. These meetings have provoked astonishment and anger among the Palestinians because Abbas holds many of them at the expense of his meetings with his own people. Moreover, his meetings are considered marginal because he is not seeing anyone senior or influential, and they present an inaccurate image to the international community, portraying Palestine-Israel relations as “business as usual”.

The responsibility for organising Palestine-Israel meetings lies with the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society; it is affiliated to the PLO and headed by Muhammad Al-Madani, a member of the Fatah Central Committee. The committee has been condemned in numerous campaigns by Palestinian factions calling for its dissolution because of its “normalisation” of links with Israel; its record is filled with participation in Israeli events.

The committee was established in December 2012 by the Palestinian leadership to strengthen communication with various sectors in Israeli society in order to seek a peaceful solution. In its first meeting, it agreed to send letters to Israeli parties, including the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss political forces in Israel. It also targeted members of the Israeli Knesset from various parties to form a parliamentary lobby, as well as various groups in Israel, such as those representing Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopian Jews and Jews from Arab countries. Dialogue channels were opened for discussions with research centres and civil society organisations inside Israel because they include former senior politicians and military personnel, all of whom once played important roles in formulating official positions, decisions and policies.

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Al-Madani secured visits by Israeli delegations to Al-Muqata’a, the PA headquarters in Ramallah, where they met Abbas. He also opened communication channels with various Israeli political, cultural and partisan figures, as well as civil society organisations and institutions. In February 2014, for example, Abbas met with a group of Israeli students, while in August the following year he met with a delegation from the Meretz Party headed by Zehava Gal-On. During the same month, he met with Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the former Zionist Camp party. A meeting between Abbas and four former Israeli ambassadors — Daniel Shek, Nissim Zvili, Elie Barnavi, and Yehuda Lancry — went ahead in September 2015. Former Israeli Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit was also a visitor.

In November 2015, the committee held a meeting in Haifa with a large number of senior Israeli academics at the home of a lecturer from the Technion and Haifa Municipal advisor for foreign affairs. This was followed a couple of months later by a meeting between Abbas and several Israeli journalists covering Palestinian events, including Avi Issacharoff, Ohad Hamo, and Dana Sumberg. In the same month, Abbas met an Israeli women’s delegation. Later, in March 2016, the Palestinian leader met with Sam Ben Shitrit, founder and chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jews, in the presence of 60 members of Jewish delegations from Arab countries. The President told his guests that he listens to Israeli singer Moshe Eliyahu because he sings in Arabic, and expressed his admiration for another Israeli singer. April 2016 saw a delegation from the Interaction Committee meet with Professor Efraim Sadka and writer Ronit Azouri.

In September last year, Abbas met with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In the same month, he met with a delegation representing left-wing Israeli parties headed by Peace Now chairman Shaqued Morag and Meretz MK Moshe Raz. Then, in February this year, he received 30 economists from the “Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock” foundation, headed by businessman Shmuel Meitar.

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The Interaction Committee’s work has gone beyond politics to the level of establishing personal relations with the Israelis, prompting an angry Palestinian response. The committee chairman participated in the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in September 2016, six months after offering condolences to the family of an Israeli soldier and the head of the Civil Administration in the village of Julis inside occupied Palestine, Munir Amar.

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres attends his party’s conference in Tel Aviv, December 12, 2004. REUTERS/Nir Elias/ Files

Last month, public Palestinian unease spread due to the fact that illegal Jewish settlers attended the wedding of the son of Fatah official and Head of Deir Qadis Village Council, Radi Nasser. The settlers wore their traditional clothing and caps.

In May, a number of settler activists participated in a Ramadan iftar — breaking of the fast — in the city of Hebron at the invitation of figures who seek to normalise relations with Israel. This provoked a great deal of anger among Palestinians who attacked the people involved and called for immediate action to hold them accountable to the community.

These are the main meetings organised by the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society including youth, students, women, academics and economists, as well as extremist settlers and rabbis. The committee also organised a normalisation breakfast with Zionist Israeli figures in Jaffa, attended by Al-Madani; former Mayor of Beit Sahour Hani Al-Hayek; Nicola Khamis, the Mayor of Beit Jala and a representative of the Israeli Tnuva Company; Khader Kokaly; and Ashraf Ajrami, a former PA minister.

Members of the committee have also participated in conferences on Israel’s national security, such as the Herzliya Conference attended by PLO Executive Committee member Ahmad Majdalani and the Interaction Committee’s Vice-Chairman, Elias Zananiri.

Despite calls for the committee to be dissolved, its chairman Muhammad Al-Madani announced the launch of the Palestinian Forum for Freedom and Peace, which includes Palestinian officials who have held ministerial, leadership, parliamentary, partisan, academic, economic, religious, legal, private sector and civil society positions of authority. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Israel established the Israeli Peace Parliament.

In April, a few days before the Israeli General Election, the Interaction Committee prepared a document — “Palestinian positions on the basic issues of conflict with Israel” — which was printed in Hebrew and distributed in an effort to influence Israeli voters.

Palestinians question whether this effort convinced even one Israeli to back Palestinian rights. Penetrating Israeli society to such an extent is almost impossible, given the major developments in Israel’s system of governance and public opinion which tend to veer towards extremism and neo-fascism. While the committee seems to be focusing its efforts on Sephardic-Eastern Jews to gain their support for Palestinian rights, it has overlooked the fact that these individuals generally make up a broad section of the Israeli right and far-right.

Any achievements by the Interaction Committee will, if anything, be in Israel’s favour because its activities make it appear as if there is no conflict between the Palestinians and the occupation. While the Palestinians make major sacrifices, the committee portrays a distorted image that ignores the conflict on the ground.

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Indeed, its work constitutes a psychological war against the Palestinian people, who are fully aware that these “normalisation” meetings are not working, having been tried over many years. As such, intensifying them throws up a challenge to the feelings of ordinary Palestinians, forcing them to normalise with something that they simply do not want. The committee’s key role in this process also provides justification for Arabs across the region to normalise their links with the occupation state; it is not logical to campaign against such links if the PLO has a committee to promote them.

It can be no accident that the committee’s work with Israeli society coincides with the rush towards Arab normalisation efforts, particularly by the Gulf States, and specifically after the Bahrain conference. That is why such activities must end without delay; they do more harm than good and provide the Israelis with new media and political platforms. The Palestinians, meanwhile, remain trapped in their mundane political and media levels.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.