"We all owe them a debt of gratitude."
- Baroness Falkner of Margravine
By Anthony Silkoff
I was at the House of Lords on Thursday, 7 February, watching from the public gallery as they debated, for the first time ever, the role of civil society organisations in promoting peace in Israel and Palestine. As many Peers pointed out, 2013 represents 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords. Lord Bew (Crossbench) poignantly remarked, "the happy future that seemed to beckon in Washington in September 1993 has not come about." There is, then, little cause for celebration on this particular anniversary.
However, sitting in the gallery among Italian tourists and a family of Hasidic Jews, I was delighted to hear Baroness Falkner (Liberal Democrat) remind the Lords of the importance of civil society organisations which "have not given up on the peace process, even while their governments either wilfully backslide or are powerless to move forward."
We heard how organisations such as OneVoice continue to demand that both sides have a future that is better than their past. Indeed, this "remarkable organisation" (Lord Triesman, Labour), is tackling the very obstacles to the peace process that this debate identified.
Peers spoke despairingly about the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, each one making a two-state solution harder to realise. However, Baroness Falkner provided some hope, noting that "OneVoice Palestine is at the forefront of peaceful opposition to illegal settlement activity...in February 2012, OneVoice Palestine brought around 150 Palestinian youths to plant dozens of trees and Palestinian flags in a barren area east of Bethlehem that was under threat of confiscation by Israeli military order."
Much blame for the current situation was laid at the door of the outgoing Israeli government, as well as continued political division amongst Palestinians. Nonetheless, civil society provides hope where politicians are seen to be failing. Lord Sheikh (Conservative) praised OneVoice Israel, which "campaigned during the Israeli elections on the importance of citizens opting for moderate candidates who are committed to a two-state solution."
Peers were not only turning to OneVoice to revive the peace process. Other organisations, such as Hand-in-Hand, B'tselem, YaLa Young Leaders, and the Alliance for Middle East Peace were also cited, with Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (Labour) stating that "their activity is a vital part of encouraging their respective societies to engage in renewed negotiations towards a two-state solution."
While all these organisations provide reasons to be cheerful, government spokesperson Lord Wallace (Liberal Democrat) was clear in his fear that "the time left to preserve and reinstate a two-state solution is now limited. If we fail to make progress in the next 18 months to two years, it may possibly be too late."
For that reason, I'm proud that OneVoice in 2013 is turning up the heat, with new and innovative projects, two of which were cited by Peers in Thursday's debate. Reaching out to Palestinian women, "OneVoice Palestine has recently started a programme to educate and empower women from towns and villages to become leaders in their communities" (Lord Sheikh).
Reaching out to investors, "at OneVoice, John Lyndon and his team are now also looking at using civic, economic, and media milestones as part of an ambitious programme called the Peoples' Blueprint" (Lord Stone, Labour).
'It's hugely encouraging to hear these messages of solidarity and encouragement from esteemed members of the House of Lords, and to know that they are with the moderate majority of Israelis and Palestinians struggling for peace,” said Tal Harris, executive director of OneVoice Israel.
Baroness Falkner summed up her statement "with the observation that, while the peace process is often described as 'dead', in the words of Aaron David Miller, the U.S. negotiator on successive talks: 'It is not yet buried and it will be back'."
I felt immensely proud of all our Palestinian and Israeli activists when Baroness Falkner told the House of Lords: "When it [the peace process] returns, its foundations will have been laid by the thousands of activists on both sides who work day in and day out for that end. We all owe them a debt of gratitude."