On the same side?

A Jerusalem-based peace initiative is attracting settlers, haredim, left-wingers and Arabs.

Israel and Palestinian flags (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Israel and Palestinian flags
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
 Last week, some 200 people gathered at the capital’s Agron Youth Hostel for the first public launch of the “Two States, One Homeland” peace initiative. The crowd spanned an unusually broad swathe of Israeli society for such an event, with settlers, kibbutzniks, Arabs and haredim joining left-wing peace activists.
Although it was not a religious gathering, the Thursday conference opened with a recitation of “Shehehiyanu” – the blessing one makes on something new – and the audience responded with a loud “amen.” Indeed, the initiative has an element that one doesn’t find in most other peace endeavors, which is the central place it gives to both the profound attachment of Jews to the Land of Israel, and the genuine yearning of Palestinians for the places they lived before 1948.
Poet Eliaz Cohen from Kfar Etzion – who recited the opening blessing – and Tel Aviv resident Meron Rapoport – the visionary of this initiative – are only two of those involved in the endeavor, which was going on for three years before going public. The initiative has a counterpart in the Palestinian Authority – one of its leaders was present at the conference – and is gaining support there, too, albeit at a slower pace.
Rapoport, 58, who was born and raised in what he calls “the State of Tel Aviv,” recalls that he was “writing for one of the leading daily papers” when the idea for the project took root.
“I was a typical left-winger, and the first acknowledgment that things were not so easy to define... began to occupy my mind through my work, through stories I wrote on Palestinians who fled from here in 1948, and later on, with a series of interviews with leading figures among the settlers,” he says.
What struck him was that among many Palestinians, the memories of places they had lived in what had later become part of the State of Israel were still so vivid.
“I heard from them stories about beaches and places where they lived, and the memories of my own mother, who came as a child from the United States to a moshav in the Sharon [region], just fit – the names of the places, the things and the landscape. It was all, in fact, the same stories.”
That was the first time he fully realized how very much alive these memories still were, he says. “I understood that the usual Left [position] that proposed a separation – the famous ‘they will be there, and we are here’ – wouldn’t take into account the yearnings of these people. I realized for the first time that the problem didn’t start with the results of the 1967 war, but began in fact in 1948 and its [aftermath].”
During his meetings with settlers, he met Cohen, an activist in peace initiatives between settlers in the Gush Etzion region and Arabs from the same area, including those that the late Rabbi Menachem Froman arranged.
Ten years ago, following the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Rapoport met some of the most prominent settler leaders in Judea and Samaria, and these encounters completed the new picture in his mind – namely that it was impossible and unrealistic to expect that Jews would stop feeling connected to sites like Hebron and Bethlehem.
“It made sense that expecting Jews to consider such historic places [part of a] foreign land would be just like saying that the State of Israel could be established in Uganda,” he says.
With these new insights, he moved to the Haaretz daily, where he began a series of stories on Jerusalem and the political situation on the ground on both sides. The case of Jerusalem was the turning point for Rapoport, particularly in the wake of the 2003 Geneva Initiative.
That proposal, he explains, entailed “an impossible partition of [Jerusalem] between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, that would have turned this place into a series of fortified strongholds disconnected from each other. As for the Old City – the very heart of the matter – they proposed a joint management, a kind of partnership. I asked myself, how could it be... that exactly where the problem touched its nuclear center, a partnership was possible, while for the less ‘sensitive’ sites, a total separation was requested?” In 2012, he wrote a paper called “A Practical Utopia,” sent it out to several people and asked for their reactions – which were, in most cases, exactly what he expected.
“There was a vast response to the main idea proposed, and that led to the next natural step – that the two-state solution was not possible anymore and had to be replaced by a solution that would take into consideration the importance of the Land of Israel for all parties,” he says.
FOR COHEN, who had been involved in several projects to establish an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual confidence between the Jewish and Arab residents of the Gush Etzion region, this couldn’t fit better.
“I have been engaged in many, many projects – first under... my teacher of blessed memory, Rabbi Froman, and then with many friends here, we established contacts with our Arab neighbors,” Cohen says. “We work together on promoting mutual respect, as the sons of one [shared] ancestor, Abraham. We have a joint organization named Roots, through which we [arrange] joint projects with children. It all came [together] perfectly.”
As one of the leading settler figures preaching coexistence among those who share monotheistic faiths, he found in Rapoport’s “Utopia” paper an echo of his own efforts and hopes.
“However, for the moment,” he adds with a sad smile, “apart from a few people from Ofra [in Samaria], the only settlers who are with us are from Gush Etzion, a region in which many attempts to promote peace and coexistence have already existed for a while.”
Regardless, he says, “I refuse to lose hope.”
Adds Rapoport, “We aim at breaking this false dichotomy that sees Israeli society as two distinct sides – which assumes that if you are for the Land of Israel, you cannot at the same time care about peace and human rights. And we have seen how many parts of Israeli society that until now have mostly been outside the peace scene – like the Sephardi [community], the haredim, the Israeli Arabs – have found their place within this initiative.”
For now, he and Cohen, together with the board members of the organization established to promote “Two States, One Homeland,” are focusing on swelling their ranks. Following an initial (closed) meeting in Jaffa last October, last week’s Jerusalem conference – which symbolized the city’s particular role in this peace initiative – was the first step in bringing it to the outside world.
The organizers expect to see more Israelis joining, from all parts of the country’s multifaceted society.
They aim to build a large movement in which Jews, religious or secular, who feel a strong and profound tie to the Land of Israel – to Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem no less than to Tel Aviv, Netanya and Jerusalem – will no longer be considered an obstacle to peace, but an asset to coexistence and peace efforts.
“After the Arab Spring, after the summer 2011 protest in Israel... I believe it is time for another language here, and we are convinced that the ‘Two States, One Homeland’ solution speaks exactly this new language,” says Rapoport.
Two States, One Homeland
The idea of sharing the geographical unit known as the Land of Israel, rather than splitting it, has arisen in peace initiatives before – the best known case, perhaps, being the proposal by IPCRI (Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives), which was published in November 2014 under the title “Two States in One Space.”
Activist Meron Rapoport’s peace initiative has a slightly different name, entailing more than merely a semantic difference.
Rapoport and his fellow “Two States, One Homeland” participants are starting from a position that sees in the Land of Israel one geopolitical unit that has historic, religious and cultural ties with both Jews and Palestinians – thus the use of the word “homeland,” denoting more than just a geographical space.
Under Rapoport’s plan, Israel and Palestine will be two sovereign states, but the borders between them – which follow the June 4, 1967, lines – will be open. In fact, they will be practically nonexistent, since movement between the two states will not be restricted to their respective citizens.
Another important point of the plan is that both states will be democratic, as a basis for enabling such a partnership. The two states will have the right to decide for themselves what immigration laws they will have – thereby enabling Palestine to bring refugees of the 1948 war back into its territory, and Israel to offer aliya to any Jews around the world.
Jewish settlers who choose to remain on the Palestinian side will be residents of Palestine, but will remain citizens of Israel and therefore eligible to vote for its government. The same will go for Palestinians who remain inside Israeli territory.
As for Jerusalem, it will be the capital of both states. Palestinian residents will be citizens of Palestine, and Jewish residents will be citizens of Israel. The two parties will share a municipality, with special regulations in place to facilitate that. Representatives of the religious parties and an international committee will administer the holy sites, ensuring free worship for all.
The two states will establish demilitarized zones; no foreign army will enter either state without joint permission. And last, but not least, both states will commit to solving all conflicts between them in peaceful ways.