Coffee, tea, and diplomacy: Palestinian parlor meetings target Israeli public

Amid official pessimism on both sides, a Palestinian initiative seeks to change Israeli hearts and minds by meeting face to face.

Oded Balilty/AP/File
People gather at Rabin Square during a rally marking 20 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 31, 2015. Sign in Hebrew at left reads: 'We have hope and it will win.'

The tiny café was set for an event: Chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, and on each table were plates of pie and cheesecake.

The gaggle of mostly peacenik Israelis who showed up Wednesday evening made small talk, not exactly knowing what to expect from the featured speaker.

The guest of honor, Elias Zananiri, had made the trip from Ramallah on behalf of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as part of recent initiative by Palestinian officials to hold parlor meetings with Israelis.

It’s a modest outreach effort to speak to the hearts and minds of Israelis, despite a recent wave of violence and widespread pessimism on both sides that a peace deal will be possible any time soon. Israeli leaders have issued a steady stream of accusations that the Palestinian leadership refuses peace.

“The main mission is to reach out to as many Israelis as possible, and explain the Palestinian position, so they will hear from us and not about us,” says Mr. Zananiri, a long-time Palestinian journalist who is deputy head of the outreach project. “We owe it to both sides: We owe it to our side that we have to take our message to Israelis. We owe it to the Israelis so they understand what we are up to.

“I like to call it a political skirmish,” he says.

Zananiri immediately demonstrates fluency with his audience by quoting a Hebrew slogan from a peacenik bumper sticker in the streets nearby: “It won’t end until we talk.”

To further put his audience at ease, Zananiri signals that tonight's talk isn't about competing historical narratives.

“I don’t want to talk about the Nakba,” he starts, referring to the Arabic term for the 1948 “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation and the Palestinian displacement that ensued. “I don’t want to debate about history. What interests me is the future.”

In between interjections from a generally receptive crowd, Zananiri drives home his main points: that Israelis suffer too from the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank; that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lacks the greatness of predecessors to take bold steps for peace; and that President Abbas might be the most moderate Palestinian partner for an agreement the Israelis could hope for. And that peace with the Palestinians is key to Israel normalizing relations with its other Arab neighbors.

Challenging questions

Indeed, absent from the talk is any mention of such hot-button issues as Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, or the threat of boycotts.

For all the empathy from the crowd, some try to challenge Zananiri and two accompanying colleagues. “I’ve never seen Abu Mazen speaking in Hebrew,” says Tzachi, a lawyer and a self-declared “extreme rightist” using Abbas’s nom de guerre. “Maybe if he spoke in Israeli prime time it would influence us. He should talk to the Israeli people.”

“Where is your Rabin Square?” asks Shneor Sakur, an ultra-Orthodox participant, referring to the Tel Aviv site of many large peace rallies and echoing a common Israeli complaint that there’s no Palestinian parallel to Israel’s peace movement.

“I don’t believe in the Palestinian public and their pure intentions about peace. I want to hear there’s a majority for a peace process and a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but I don’t hear it,” complains Hanoch Herman, a retired technology company executive.

Declining expectations

The grass-root encounters are the initiative of the Committee for Interaction with Israelis, an arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which for years has organized high-profile meetings with Israeli social activists at the presidential compound in Ramallah. In recent months, the group has opened up an Israeli focused Facebook page dubbed “Palestine in Hebrew.”

Parlor meetings similar to the café roundtable have been held in recent weeks in Haifa and the Tel Aviv suburb of Mazkeret Batya. There are plans to hold another one in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish city of Bnei Brak, another Tel Aviv suburb.

The Palestinian outreach is confronting rising disillusionment with the prospects for peace. According to a November survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, three-fourths of Israeli Jews think negotiations will not lead to peace with the Palestinians.

“The aim is to change the [mindset] of the people. They see that the public is moving rightward in recent years,” says an Israeli journalist who covers Palestinian affairs and asked to remain anonymous. “They want to stop the wave. Their purpose is to change the politics of the people.”

Is initiative too late?

Back in the West Bank – where a December survey showed two thirds of Palestinians saying an armed uprising would serve their national interest – there’s similar pessimism about negotiations and criticism about the outreach to Israelis as a premature “normalization” of ties. Other Palestinians question whether such a dialogue has any chance of succeeding.

“They’re 15 years too late,” says Diana Buttu, recalling that she held dozens of similar meetings with Israeli audiences in 2001 and 2002 on behalf of the Palestinian negotiations team that she describes as futile.

“What’s the message: That Palestinians are nice too? It’s pointless,” she says. “There’s no political message that they’re pushing anymore. It’s literally an outreach project.”

At the café in Tel Aviv, Zananiri concludes with a sober warning about the post-Abbas future. “What I’m worried about is that the moderate line will collapse after him.”

A ripple effect

The participants adjourn in a round of handshakes and hugs, though the reactions are mixed.

“They are talking from a point of desperation, and that’s not a strong position to come from,” says Hana Elon, the Israeli moderator, who complains she couldn’t get more friends to come. “The challenge is not a dialogue with the left, but the Israeli mainstream.”

However, Tali Mizrachi, a 47-year-old teacher, says the novelty of meeting Palestinian representatives will eventually cause a ripple effect, however small at the beginning.

“It’s like throwing a stone in the water. You hear lots of people talking now about doing something,” she says. “I brought a friend from the right. The fact he was willing to listen and speak with a member of the PLO – that was an achievement.”  

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