It is a new era, Hilik Bar, a fresh young leader of the Labor Party in the Knesset, led 300 young Israelis to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. At the headquarters of the PA, Bar and the young leaders had a chance to ask the leader of the Palestinians any question and received open and honest answeres from a leader who seemed to be clearly seeking compromise and peace
While Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama and the AIPAC Policy Conference convenes in Washington DC, Bar and his colleagues make it clear that there is momentum for Peace and reconciliation and that leaders — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — need to have vision and courage to take advantage of this unique moment.
MK Hilik Bar points us and Israel in the right direction at a time of key decision making.
“The last time so many Israelis entered the Muqata, the Palestinian President’s compound in Ramallah, was probably during the IDF Operation Defensive Shield. This time, the doors of the Muqata were opened to warmly welcome in young Israeli students. They came for direct and open dialogue with the Palestinian President and were graciously received by Abu Mazen.” These moving words opened an article from Israeli Channel 2 news, one of over 800 pieces published about this Ramallah meeting worldwide.
The picture below captures a glimpse of the packed room, full of Israeli students and young leaders. Abbas and I struck a conciliatory, hopeful tone as we enter with Mr. Muhamed Al-Madani beside me. (Picture: Nasser Nasser / Associated Press).
Roughly 70 media outlets and 110 reporters came to the Muqata compound in Ramallah to witness and report on this rare and unprecedented meeting between 300 youth leaders and students and Palestinian President Abu Mazen. Much of the media reported on critical statements made by Abu Mazen, such as had never been spoken by him before.
This encounter was an astounding achievement and an event that I had the privilege to initiate, plan and organize in my role as Chairman of the Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab-Israeli Conflict, in cooperation with the ‘One Voice’ movement led by Laura Tlinovsky.
The event was exceptional, exciting, and novel. Unlike anything I could recall. But it was complex and often difficult. Encouraging and at times, disheartening. But with my years of experience of in matters of conflict resolution, I understood that this was exactly what needed to be done. Two sides talking. Two hours of questions and answers. One real conversation.
Abbas’ answers were deeply heartfelt. He was honest and optimistic but upfront with his own frustrations. It was an elegant and respectful ‘battle’ between the Palestinian President and our young leaders. They questioned him enthusiastically and he replied to them with honor and care. Mutual respect had flooded the room from a desire to understand, a passion to learn, and a thirst to listen.
“You came to meet the enemy today,” I told the young people in my opening remarks. “President Abu Mazen does not love nor support Israel, and he is no flag-waving Zionist. He is still our enemy. And it is precisely because of this that we came here today. To look him in the eye and ask him the most difficult questions.” And with that, I opened the floodgates and the questions began.
And they asked. They asked with a fervor that moved me, a fervor that made me realize that this type of dialogue had been missing. This was the first time Israeli youth could ask and hear directly from the President. Not on behalf of, or in the name of, or by means of. And he answered and answered everything.
As the dialogue continued, there was one thing we clearly all agreed upon – it needed to continue. This question and answer opportunity was exactly what we have been missing in our dealings with the same people that have lived right next door and amongst us, for decades, as the other. And we have been the same to them. We must talk, meet, ask questions and get answers. Only then will we perhaps learn that things can be different. At this meeting, most of the young people there learned precisely this.
In this next picture, I am telling Abbas that Israel has an amazing generation of young adults who are very much committed to the Two States peace solution and I hope that the Palestinian young youth feel similarly. “If you guys won’t bring us peace”, I told him, “the young generation will have to do it in the future. But the mutual price we will pay will be much higher,” I added.
“It is very sad that two peoples, who have lived side by side and amongst one another for 70 years now, do not really know each other or their desires, history, narrative, fears, and aspirations of each other. It is very important that we change this or peace between us will never happen. If only mutual hatred and demonization reign, no leader will be able to come before his people and ask them to compromise for the sake of peace. We came here to change this, at least a little, today,” I concluded in my remarks to the young people.
And with that, the event began after a comprehensive and welcoming speech by Abu Mazen.
A certain segment of the media’s response made me ask myself the following question: What do ‘Al Jazeera’ and the right wing newspaper ‘Israel Hayom’ have in common? Usually, absolutely nothing. But this time, both responded to our event in a positive light, fairly, and with quiet approval. Almost all of the other media outlets that covered the event – Israeli, international, and from the Arab world – followed in suit.
Except for Hamas, which condemned the event. This was the first time that Hamas has condemned an activity of mine rather than me condemning their murderousness. But there’s a first time for everything, and I, of course, take it as a compliment. Clearly they didn’t love our meeting with Abu Mazen. So evidently, we did something right.
To be fair and to bring you comprehensively up to date with what happened during this rare meeting, I will list many of the articles and headlines from the very best local and international media outlets that covered the event. Some are positive, some critical, and some skeptical – judge for yourself!
Click on the name of the media outlet to read the story:
- The New York Times describes this exceptional meeting as the first time hundreds of Israelis entered the Muqata compound since the Second Intifada. This time out of uniform and not in tanks.
- NBC News calls on everyone to ‘give peace a chance.’
- The Jerusalem Post describes our event as Abbas’ meeting with ‘Jewish students,’ even though dozens of them were not Jews. In fact, many Arabs and Druze Israelis participated.
- The Times of Israel jokingly – or perhaps not – told of how the Israeli students received Abbas as a ‘rock star,’ and another article from the Times of Israel explained that Abbas promised that he does not want to flood Israel with refugees nor divide Jerusalem.
- An Arab News article headlined reports that Abu Mazen is showing flexibility on the subject of Palestinian refugees.
- The headline in the Daily Star out of Lebanon was similarly effervescent on the subject.
- A great article was also posted to Yahoo! News saying that there has not been such an influx of Israelis to Ramallah since 2002.
- The Jewish magazine, The Jewish Press, reveals that Abbas seeks a partnership to share Jerusalem between two states.
- The prestigious Jewish Daily Forward also puts forth a detailed and informed article on the meeting.
- The Islam Times reports in similar fashion to these world Jewish publications.
- For readers of Arabic, here is a comprehensive piece about the event from the website PANET, the largest in Israel and amongst the largest in the Middle East – browse the pictures from the meeting at the end of this article to get an excellent sense of the mood of room during the Q&A.
- And finally, the right-wing Arutz Sheva also reports on the precedent-setting meeting in its headline, which screams ‘Two states for two peoples – and don’t you dare say otherwise.’
- Oh yes, and for dessert, one article out of the many in which Hamas condemns the meeting I initiated in Ramallah. Here is the report from the Times of Israel on that subject.
So what does this all mean? It means that we must talk NOW and quickly with those who have lived just over the fence for 70 years, who we still don’t really know, and who don’t really know us. We deserve to see and learn more for ourselves about who the other side really is. Who is the real enemy, how do they look, how do they sound. It’s time to ask the hard questions and to get the tough answers. Not just through a mediator, not just through a third party. To know if the other side understands what we want, what we think, what we fear and what troubles us. And just as significantly – the reverse. If that doesn’t happen – there will not be peace. At least, not true peace.
I hope we find the strength amongst ourselves to host a similar meeting between young Palestinians and Prime Minister Netanyahu. My caucus is ready and willing to be involved in this task if called upon by the Prime Minister.
I promise to continue and to do everything as chairman of the caucus and Secretary-General of the Labor Party, the party of Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered for his struggle for peace, to strengthen the dialogue between the parties, and to lay the groundwork for the day peace comes. Or for the day, if the Right Wing in Israel doesn’t succeed in bringing us peace, that we will bring peace ourselves. We’ve done it before; there is no reason we won’t do it in the future.
Deputy Speaker of the KnessetMK Hilik Bar
Chairman, Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Israeli-Arab Conflict