I have just returned from three stretching days’ work in a workshop and conference in Cologne (28th November to 1st December) with 15 Palestinian and 15 Israeli Mayors, where I moderated the discussions (using every technique known to me from the meeting-management handbook!) to negotiate agreement on practical steps for cooperation between them. Okay, it was not exactly negotiating the Oslo Peace Accords, but at times we felt pretty close to how the diplomats must have felt at the time!
At several points, our work seemed doomed to end without agreement – but finally, we managed to draw up a set of future projects to work on together, covering promotion of tourism to the West Bank (aiming to increase not just numbers, but the amount spent in the West Bank by tourists), environmental issues, water purification, exchange visits (political, business, young people etc.), as well as a mayors’ network to promote practical cooperation.
I pay tribute to the mayors – not easy politically for any of them – and to the hosts, the City of Cologne (partner to both Bethlehem and Tel Aviv) and the Municipal Alliance for Peace, a consortium promoting the local government contribution to Middle East peace. It provides an independent forum for the local government associations – APLA(Palestine) and ULAI (Israel) to meet together.
The first one and a half days was working just with the mayors and some close partners like UNDP – the United Nations Development Programme – and GIZ, the German development agency. The objective was to thrash out the practical proposals for cooperation between local government from both sides, despite all the political problems and difficulties that persist at macro level.
This was followed by a European conference, which I also chaired and moderated, which also brought in a range of colleagues from German and wider European cities and towns, to discuss how they could add their support, including through tripartite city partnerships (Europe-Israel-Palestine).
Throughout the three days, the reality of the political situation was always there – the wall, the issues of water rights, and the impact of West Bank settlements – and the exchanges were often heated. What was impressive, despite this, was the willingness of the participants to take risks in looking for what local government can do together in a practical way, independent of national politics… Here, the involvement of mayors of Arab municipalities of Israel added a particular important dimension.
It is one thing to reach agreement in a meeting outside their region, another thing to implement in practice… so we have to see how far progress will be made in the coming weeks. But for me, it was a tough and exciting 3 days; I was happy to get a really positive feedback from both delegations. And it was very moving for me when, at the very end, an interpreter who had been working throughout our long sessions, came up to me and said I was the best meeting moderator she had ever come across…praise indeed from such a source!