On Monday the Knesset Caucus for Israeli- Arab peace was launched, attended by about one-third of the Knesset Members and with more than 250 citizen supporters in the audience.

This caucus of MKs strives to be the largest in the 19th Knesset based on support of what is believed to be the official position of the government and the prime minister. Two states for two peoples is the central theme of Israeli-Palestinian peace that must be supported by regional peace developments between Israel and as many of its neighbors as possible.

At the caucus's launch event the focus of the agenda was the revitalized Arab Peace Initiative which recently was reratified by the Arab League states. The API was moved forward recently by the announcement of the Qatari prime minister that the Arab League views the possibility of territorial swaps between Israel and the Palestinians as being within the context of their peace initiative.

The majority of the MK who spoke at the event emphasized that the State of Israel has never formally expressed positively that the Arab Peace Initiative could be a good basis for moving the peace agenda forward. There has never been an official Israeli response to the initiative, which promises Israel full recognition and normal relations with all states in the region in addition to more than 50 states which are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The API was first issued in March 2002 and remains on the agenda of the Arab states since, including after all of the revolutionary changes that have occurred since then.

The API speaks clearly about bringing the Israeli-Arab conflict to an end and resolving all of the issues that are on the agenda through negotiations.

On the morning of the caucus's launch, Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s interview with The New York Times was published, in which he called the Palestinian president names and cast him as a non-partner. Lapid made those derogatory statements without speaking to President Mahmoud Abbas even once.

Demonstrating a lack of seriousness and extreme irresponsibility as a leader who sees himself as a future prime minister, Lapid repeated populist propaganda without bothering to invest the time to listen directly to what the Palestinian leader has to say for himself.

On the day following elections in Israel, I personally delivered an invitation to Lapid from Abbas, who offered to meet him privately or publicly, as Lapid desired. Lapid responded to me that as long as coalition negotiations were going on he would not meet with Abbas. After those negotiations were completed and Lapid become finance minister, he received several invitations from me to meet Abbas, including one I presented to him face-to-face in the Knesset. But Lapid apparently felt it was easier to simply tell the New York Times Abbas is not a peace partner.

Lapid’s stance is not unique. Our prime minister has also refused to meet Abbas and continues to claim that it is Abbas who is not the partner. One of the most important statements made at the caucus meeting was by veteran Labor MK and former defense minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, who told the audience that he personally had offered to over 10 times to bring Abbas to Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu put off the initiative. I too delivered at least three times over the past 18 months invitations to Netanyahu to meet Abbas in secret. Those initiatives were also rejected by Netanyahu.

It is so easy for Israel to cast doubt on Palestinian intentions.

The new mantra being repeated all over Israeli politics and media is that Palestinians no longer want a state of their own. Where they come up with this conclusion is beyond me. It is not the conclusion of negotiations with Palestinians, nor even discussions with Palestinian leaders.

Of course the Israelis say the Palestinians have made so many preconditions for negotiations that it is clear that they don’t want to negotiate.

This is not true. The Palestinian position is that before they enter into negotiations with Israel it is essential that Israel fulfills its obligations made within the parameters of the 2003 road map. Settlement freeze was a primary Israeli obligation in that document and it was never carried out, not even during the 10 months that Israel claimed to freeze settlement building in the last government.

Palestinians have a valid point, but nonetheless, I argue with them that they should come to the negotiations table without any preconditions of any kind. So should Israel. I know of no conflict in the world that has been resolved by not talking.

Israelis and Palestinians don’t believe each other – leaders and lay people alike. They are right; there is no reason why they should believe each other. But negotiations in conflict situations rarely take place when the parties trust each other; if they did there probably wouldn’t be the kind of conflict that requires these kinds of negotiations.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations cannot be conducted in public or by the public. We have chosen leaders to represent us in those negotiations. It is the job and responsibility of Netanyahu to negotiate with Abbas. He refused to do it seriously in his last term of office and four years postponed dealing seriously with the most important issue facing Israel. It will be inexcusable if he wastes another four years this time.

We need Netanyahu to be the Israeli prime minister to sit across from the table with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is smart enough to know the parameters of an agreement.

There are risks, but the risks of not doing it are so much greater for Israel. It is time for Netanyahu and Abbas to put all of the issues on the table and sit together until they reach an agreement.

The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.

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