By Anthony Silkoff*
Back in February, I was in the lofty gallery of the House of Lords as members heaped praise on the activists of OneVoice Palestine and OneVoice Israel, who work tirelessly to revive a two-state solution. Three months later, I traveled to a very different parliament – the Israeli Knesset – to see OneVoice Israel doing just that.
The Knesset is now in its 19th session, and like most national parliaments, it has caucuses – or lobbies – made up of its members. Until OneVoice established a two-state solution caucus in the 18th Knesset, there had never been one, and the largest caucus was advocating for "Greater Israel," pushing for the annexation of the West Bank. On May 20, OneVoice’s Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict launched, and this time it is the biggest caucus in the Knesset, demonstrating the growth of OneVoice’s parliamentary outreach and an increased support for two states in the Knesset.
The differences between the brash, modern Knesset, and the genteel, antique House of Lords couldn’t be starker, even from the outside. From certain angles, the concrete-pillared Knesset looks positively Soviet, while the neo-gothic spires of the Lords give it the whiff of a bygone era.
On the inside, Knesset members have no time for the formal etiquette demonstrated by the House of Lords. Indeed, the heckling, name-calling, and general fracas of the Knesset got so bad a few years ago that incoming MKs were subject to a five-hour course on how to behave in the chamber.
So, as I joined 500 onlookers in a packed Knesset auditorium, there was plenty of cheering, booing, applause, and heckling at various points as MKs lined up one after the other to forcefully criticize their government’s response – or rather, lack of one – to the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
Former police investigator Moshe Mizrahi, now a Labor MK, got the crowd cheering with his visionary statement that the API could, if seized, benefit the children of Israelis, and their children’s children. Zahava Galon (MK for Meretz) struck a chord too, as she told the audience that PM Benjamin Netanyahu was foolish for ignoring the API.
It wasn’t only MKs from the traditional ‘left’ who made this case. One of the most striking speeches of the day came from Yitzhak Cohen, of the ultra-orthodox Shas party. Cohen told those assembled that the API was good for Israel, and invoked an ancient Greek legend to compel Netanyahu to “turn every rock” to achieve peace.
However, booing followed the contribution of Ze’ev Elkin, who is not a member of OneVoice’s caucus, but the Deputy Foreign Minister. Elkin, of the Likud party, gave the government’s position and a list of excuses for why the API should be ignored, for example the “mentality of the Arabs.” The more he spoke, the more excuses poured out, the more he was heckled.
While booing and heckling don’t sound very polite, I believe they are – in Israel, at least – the sound of progress. Here in the UK, there is often talk of disconnect between voters (or non-voters) and the politicians who are supposed to represent them. In Israel, where there is no constituency system, this disconnect is even more obvious; there are few, if any, chances for citizens to hold their representatives to account. OneVoice Israel is bridging this gap with events like this, where the voters are able to question – and heckle, when necessary – their representatives.
Back in Europe, the role of supporters of OneVoice should be to capitalize on this momentum. Finally, the two-state-willing majority of Israelis is represented in a strong Knesset lobby and the task now is to translate this will into real political action to end the conflict and end the occupation of Palestinian lands.
By uniting members of the Knesset with the Israeli grassroots, uniting Palestinian Authority members with the Palestinian grassroots – and uniting both with members of parliaments and publics across Europe – the call for two states will be even more powerful.
*Anthony Silkoff is OneVoice Europe’s Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator.