By Khaled Diab
Tuesday 16 October 2012
In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.
It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.
Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.
Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.
Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.
Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.
This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.
So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.
In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.
The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.
I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”
Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.
Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”
“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”
But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.
Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.
In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”
The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”
Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.
This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.