RAMALLAH, West Bank – A delegation of Israeli lawmakers paid a rare visit to the West Bank on Monday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and give an emotional boost to fledgling peace talks that have faced deep skepticism on both sides.
Visiting the same compound where Israeli troops once laid siege on late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the 10 Israeli lawmakers pledged support for the talks that resumed in July after years of stalemate and mutual suspicion.
They insisted they were not in Ramallah in place of official negotiations, whose content has remained secret, but rather to give them a "tailwind" of support and stress the urgency of their mission.
"We don't want to believe that this is the last chance (for peace) but it may be the last chance," said Labor Party lawmaker Hilik Bar, who heads the parliamentary caucus for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "There is a clear majority for peace among the Israeli and Palestinian parliaments and people. We are here to back the leadership. It is ridiculous that we won't make peace."
Bar said his caucus was the largest in parliament with some 40 members across the political spectrum. Its aim was to bridge the "huge gap of understanding" between Israelis and Palestinians and provide a grassroots support network for leaders to make peace.
But of the 10 lawmakers who journeyed to Ramallah, nine were from the opposition Labor Party. The other came from chief negotiator Tzipi Livni's centrist Hatnuah Party. Several from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party withdrew following the death of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
A previous delegation of Palestinian lawmakers visited the Israeli parliament in August, as part of a similar outreach effort from the other side.
While previous rounds of peace talks, particularly in the 1990s, generated widespread hope and optimism, the current round has created little excitement. After so many years of failure and bouts of violence, neither side seems to be optimistic that the latest talks, expected to last nine months, will be successful.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for their state. Israeli peace advocates say the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to preserve Israel's character as a democracy with a Jewish majority. The alternative, they say, is a single state in which Arabs, with their higher birthrate, will one day outnumber Jews.
"I think nine months are enough to reach an agreement because we have discussed the issues in previous talks," Abbas told his guests. "We don't want blood. We want peace, not blood."
The visit came days after a 9-year-old Israeli girl was shot by a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank settlement of Psagot, adjacent to Ramallah. Bar said the attack spurred some lawmakers to urge the cancellation of the meeting. But he said he resisted the calls, saying that would only serve the interests of extremists.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the idea of a Palestinian state, but has also embraced tough positions in recent speeches.
In a speech Sunday, Netanyahu said there will never be peace until Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland for the Jews. The Palestinians have rejected this demand, saying it would undercut the fate of refugees who dream of returning to lost properties in what is now Israel.
Last week, Netanyahu made just a passing reference to the peace talks in a speech to the U.N., devoting almost the entire address to Iran's nuclear program.