The governments of Israel and the new "observer state" of Palestine (declared by the UN on November 29) get more and more alienated from each other, with no trust and no meetings planned. The cease fire after the Gaza war was mere weeks ago and already, violence in the West Bank seems to be on the upswing. Still, under the radar, literally thousands of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians meet, talk online and envision new ways to lower tension in the increasingly unstable political stalement.
One of these many independent citizens' initiatives is the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, or IPC, founded by Israeli Joseph Avesar, who lives in Southern California. Many of IPC's board members are Israelis, Palestinians and others now living in the United States, which maybe affords some detachment from the challenging weekly headlines on the ground here.
As an explanatory video on their website says, the realistic goal can't be to "solve every problem, but at least create a forum that encourages peaceful compromise." This forum is a joint parliament (created to supplement the existing Israeli and Palestinian parliaments).
If you're a citizen of Israel or the Palestinian territories (West Bank or Gaza), you can actually vote for the President, Vice President or representatives for this new parliament. Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza, are divided up into 300 districts, and 650 people have signed up to run for representatives from these districts. 125 candidates are running for the President/Vice-Presidential seats.
As a citizen of Israel, and a resident of district 51 (my part of Jerusalem), it was easy for me to register to vote. The information pages are available in Arabic, Hebrew or English.
I interviewed Hanna Siniora and Rafi Gassel, a Palestinian and an Israeli who are both running for President of the IPC (the person who gets most votes becomes President, second most votes go to the Vice President and after two of four years, the two must switch for the last two years of the term). Both of them have made short campaign videos for the elections, which also fill in many details of the IPC plan -- which seems to push aside the conventional 2-state vs. 1-state dichotomy that plagues many politicians and Middle East analysts.
Hanna Siniora is the former co-CEO of IPCRI, a major Israeli/Palestinian coexistence organization, a former high-level advisor of the Palestinian Authority, and an editor and publisher.
Siniora laid out the steps he thought were necessary for a substantially better situation: First the occupation must end. Then a real sovereign Palestinian state needs to be created. But what kind of relationship would the new state have with its Jewish neighbor? If Israel and Palestine were adversaries, without a kind of win-win scenario, the arrangement probably wouldn't last long. For Siniora, a confederation is ideal. He gave the example of Benelux (the economic confederation of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), that was created to successfully compete with France and Germany economically.
Gassel was a citizen of the United States before he immigrated to Israel six years ago. He told me he was at a Chanukah party a year ago, where in a political discussion, he got the predictable response from several Israelis: "All Arabs just want to kill us."
He realized he had to find a way to counteract this kind of thinking. He saw an online article about the IPC, and immediately contacted Avesar. When Avesar and other board members visited Israel earlier this year, he met them. He decided to run for President, and has spent many hours on his campaign since. His video has Arabic subtitles here, and Hebrew ones below.
I asked both Siniora and Gassel, do they really think there are any practical consequences of this internet election?
Siniora said that, at the very least, it keeps hope alive for people here in the region. He said similar confederation ideas have been part of the alternative landscape here for decades. One was called Isfalur, adding to the first syllable of Israel, the first syllables for Palestine and for Jordan (in Arabic). He says that all three are small countries, and all potentially share security and economic issues.
Gassel said the IPC initiative is a "proof of concept." If Palestinians and Israelis in the region can actually elect representatives from all 300 districts, then the new parliament can actually pass trial legislation. One example he suggests is the creation of a small joint Israeli-Palestinian economic zone.
To me, one of the real proofs of the power of this mostly internet-based coexistence activism, is that simply through social media and some word of mouth, a couple hundred Gazans have signed up to represent their districts. Given the size of Gaza City, there will be about 15 representatives from there -- and over 110 residents have signed up to represent the city.
Gassel mentions another past example: the early United States. Its Articles of Confederation were drawn up in 1777, loosely joining together the 13 states and the Territories west of them. The Articles were only replaced by the Constitution in 1788. Gassel also mentions the The European Union, an economic and political union of 27 member states.
Why can't our conventional politicians hold any of these examples in mind? I guess the effort to somehow transform the existing rigid polarities into something fresh is too much for them -- whereas, someone unburdened by defending existing situations and structures can more easily try to create a brand new institution. And maybe this institution might actually work because at this point, there's no need of an actual meeting room, and the complex security and transportation arrangements to actually get all the representatives into such a room together.
Online elections started on December 12, and go until December 31. If you or anyone you know is a citizen of Israel or Palestine, tell them to vote for the first joint Israeli-Palestinian parliament. It might actually be the birth of something important.