An Orthodox rabbi who lives in the West Bank, who helped to found the right wing Gush Emunim movement of all people is marching forward with a plan for peace...and Hamas is listening.
How can this be?
Rabbi Menachem Froman isn't new to this business. He is a man who has met often with past and present Palestinian leaders including Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas. He has been a religious adviser to the Knesset and brokered the release from prison of Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He also brokered Yassin's subsequent announcement of a ceasefire, which Israel refused to accept and Yassin subsequently withdrew.
Further it has been reported (although I haven't seen it anywhere in our media)on the eve of the Israeli move into the Gaza earlier this summer he was set to announce along with others including representatives of Hamas an exciting new initiative for peace.
The Omega Institute (OI), which works closely with the Institute for Policy Research for Development (IPRD), has written, senior Hamas leaders were in active dialogue with Israeli religious leaders in a round of bilateral peace negotiations. Israeli negotiators included Rabbi Menachem Froman, former deputy leader and co-founder of the Israeli Settler movement Gush Khatif; Rabbi David Bigman, head of the liberal religious Kibbutz movement Yeshiva at Ma’ale Gilboa; and Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder of the Arik Institute. Ongoing negotiations had resulted in a breakthrough peace “understanding”, which was to be announced at a press conference in Jerusalem to mark the launching of an extraordinary peace initiative. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert had been briefed extensively about the initiative by Frankenthal. Also due to attend the conference were Khaled Abu Arafa, the Palestinian Cabinet Minister for Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhamed Abu Tir, senior Hamas Member of the Palestinian Parliament, and other senior Palestinian delegates.
The meeting was to announce a joint Israeli-Palestinian call for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit who had been abducted by Hamas in Gaza, along with proposals for the beginning of the release of all Palestinian prisoners. These measures were to precipitate unprecedented new peace negotiations on a framework peace agreement, drawn on the 1967 borders. The presence of Palestinian Cabinet Officers and senior Israeli religious leaders in contact with the Prime Minster was to underline the seriousness of this peace proposal on both sides.
Arthur Neslen of Common Ground News Service described what happened to this promising initiative:
...the response from Israel’s security establishment was crushing.
Hours before the meeting was due to start, the Shin Bet detained Abu Tir and Abu Arafa and warned them not to attend the meeting. The news conference’s organisers were forced to contact the other rabbis — who were already on the road to Jerusalem —and tell them not to come.
Instead of a triumphant statement of mutual respect and dialogue, a subdued and gently defiant three-man panel fended off aggressive questioning from an unruly Israeli press pack.
Who were these players on the Israeli side anyway?
Rabbi Menachem Froman is the former deputy leader, and co-founder, of the extremist Messianic Israeli Settler movement “ Gush Khatif”, but he left the movement after the massacre in Hebron of Palestinians by the Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein. He now lives in the West Bank Samarian settlement of Tekoa, where he works as a Rabbi, and has been long engaged in Muslim-Jewish dialogue activities. Froman himself has a typical Israeli political background. His Uncle was murdered in the 1930’s by Ezzedine Al Qassam, a militant Cleric whose name was used by Hama’s for it’s armed wing. Froman has a track record. He was a principal negotiator in the release from prison of the Hama’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. As a result of discussions with Froman, Yassin subsequently offered a ease-fire, which Yassin withdrew, after the offer was spurned by the israeli Government. He now works closely with Rabbi David Bigman, head of the Liberal religious Kibbutz movement’s Yeshiva at Ma’ale Gilboa. They in turn are connected to Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder of the Arik Institute, who is also involved in religious and political dialog with Palestinians. Frankanthal has an unusual background. His son Arik was murdered by Hama’s operatives whilst hitch-hiking in July 1994. Instead of sinking into bitterness, Frankanthal has become a major force in Israel in the peace movement.
Rav Froman is often called a maverick Jewish religious peacemaker says the website of Jewish Peace Makers.
He is one of the founders of the Gush Emunim religious Zionist movement and a pioneer in dialogue with radical and moderate religious Muslims. Many media people regard him as a right-wing Orthodox Jew and and as a Rabbi to an illegal settlement on the West Bank.
But his views don't really fit that description. They embody openness, reconciliation and understanding of a kind which has made him a friend of many Palestinians, up to and including Abu Mazen, Yasser Arafat and the late Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin.
His main work is to find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on understanding between the Islamic and Jewish faiths. He is rabbi to Tekoa, a small settlement on the West Bank, south of Bethlehem, which takes a unique cosmopolitan and reconciliatory approach.
"My premise is that for Jews to live in all of Eretz Yisrael, they have to create a network of life with the Arabs", says Rav Froman. "In the Holy Land, you can't make peace without attending to the issue of holiness".
"Isn?t it only fitting that Jerusalem be the seat of the United Nations? cultural bodies, human rights organizations, scholarly forums? Isn?t it only proper that Jerusalem be the place where members of all faiths convene to renounce their breeding of prejudice, hostility, and war?"
The following is taken from Aljazeera.
Rabbi leads unofficial peace initiative
Hamas says the plan has potential to end the fighting
A bold peace initiative by an Israeli rabbi to free the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is close to achieving a breakthrough, but is being obstructed by Israel's ongoing reoccupation of the Gaza Strip.
Aljazeera.net has seen documents aimed at achieving a prisoner exchange, ceasefire and ongoing negotiations with Hamas.
The initiative was drawn up by Menachem Froman, the rabbi of Tekoa, a friend and associate of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president, and Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the spiritual leader of Hamas assassinated by Israel in 2004.
The plan was submitted to the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and Damascus in July.
It has the blessing of senior Jewish religious figures, including Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Israel, and Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party.
But while the Israeli government has been following the progress of the initiative, its apparent strategy to force Hamas's hand by detaining its leadership and making civilian life in Gaza intolerable threatens to push any deal out of reach.
The peace initiative envisions a face-to-face meeting in Gaza between Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, a delegation of rabbis and Muhammed Darwish, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
This would provide a crucial springboard for the plan because the Israeli and Hamas administrations are politically unable to meet each other.
Israeli raids into Gaza are hampering the plan
A formal ceasefire announcement would then be accompanied by a form of prisoner exchange involving women and those needing medical attention currently being held in Israel. That would lead to a full negotiating process covering settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and the establishment of a free Palestinian state.
However, Hamas says that Israel's ongoing military operation in the Gaza Strip is preventing progress.
Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, confirmed the existence of the plan, and its potential to end the current fighting.
"I have talked to Rabbi Froman many times and I think that there is a good chance for this [peace proposal]," he said. "But first, we need the situation here to be calm and quiet.
"We are trying to prepare the situation in order to find a time that we can contact all the parties in Gaza," he said.
"But the military tension caused by the daily incursions and deaths is making it impossible to speak normally with people here."
B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group, says that more than 191 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, have been killed since Israel invaded the Gaza Strip on June 28, in a nominal bid to free Corporal Shalit.
Despite the ongoing incursion, Rabbi Froman remains optimistic.
He says that he has received encouragement from direct talks with figures including Amir Peretz, the defence minister, Eli Yishai, the trade minister, and Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president.
"In the best case, we would announce a ceasefire - we Rabbis in the name of the people of Israel, they in the name of the Palestinian people. They would
bring the boy [Shalit] and we would bring from our side a group of Palestinian prisoners, perhaps the women, and those ill prisoners who need medical treatment"
But he is at pains to point out that he is operating independently.
"I am not working as an agent of the state or as a representative of the Zionists," he said.
"I am a citizen of the kingdom of God, not of the state of Israel. My motivation is to give glory to Allah and to do this, I am trying to convince public opinion in Israel that we need to give legitimacy to Hamas."
It is indicative of the tightrope Froman is walking that despite this, he says that Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, has given unofficial support to the initiative through a senior aide and is being updated on the situation "every step of the way".
However, the first step - a meeting in Gaza - is proving the hardest.
According to the Froman plan, Haniya, the rabbis and Abdalla Nimr Darwish would meet in Gaza to announce that "the two peoples are willing to establish a just peace".
On the phone, Hamad, reiterated that Israel's military escalation had made this difficult.
But he confirmed: "We have talked about extending an invitation [to Froman] to meet the prime minister, Ismail Haniya."
Thus far, no invite has been offered.
Froman believes the current impasse is a chicken and egg situation.
"My premier sees this [Gaza incursion] only as a reaction to the Qassams," he said.
"Ghazi is talking about a daily aggression against the Palestinians, but my prime minister is waiting to see if Haniya invites me. The minute that he does, Tsahal [the Israeli army] will stop the attacks, not only from the time we meet, but from the minute that the invitation is announced. That will be the step towards the Palestinians, and there will be a total stop to aggression in the Gaza Strip if there is a hudna [ceasefire]."
The second step outlined in the plan could be even trickier - for both sides.
It involves Jerusalem being recognised as a "City of Peace" for both peoples. To achieve this, the document says, "the two sides must announce a ceasefire [and] release of all prisoners" with priority being given to those needing medical treatment, such as Corporal Shalit.
"The next phase, assuming the truce is maintained, will include the freeing of Palestine - and all the Palestinian prisoners, in stages."
Froman insists he has received assurances that if invited to Gaza, he will be authorised by Olmert to bring a "very generous offer" with him, conditional on a ceasefire being announced.
"In the best case," he says, "we would announce a ceasefire - we rabbis in the name of the people of Israel, they in the name of the Palestinian people.
"They would bring the boy [Shalit] and we would bring from our side a group of Palestinian prisoners, perhaps the women, and those ill prisoners who need medical treatment."
The next phase, according to the document, would allow for more detailed negotiations.
Under the plan the truce "will give the opportunity for both sides to embark on a process of negotiations covering all the suspended issues such as settlements, [a Palestinian] right of return and Jerusalem, in the hope of rapidly reaching a solution enabling the establishment of a free prosperous Palestinian state side by side with the Israeli state".
Cooperation between Abbas and Haniya is also seen as crucial
The document notes that an immediate work plan has already been forwarded to the Hamas leadership in Damascus following a meeting with the (currently imprisoned) West Bank Hamas leader, Asad Farhat.
It goes on to entrust Haniya, with negotiating responsibilities "because he and his cabinet members have stronger relations with the kidnappers of the Israeli soldiers and the launchers of the rockets than the PA President [Mahmoud] Abbas".
However, cooperation between Abbas and Haniya is seen as necessary to ensure that the desired truce includes all Palestinian factions and forces.
The lost trust
But perhaps the biggest obstacle Rabbi Froman's peace plan will face is persuading the Hamas administration that the Israelis can be trusted to negotiate in good faith.
The first attempt to launch the initiative took place on June 26 at a public platform in Jerusalem with the Hamas MK Muhammed Abu Tir and Palestinian minister for Jerusalem Khalid Abu Arafa.
It was scuppered before it had even begun when the Shin Bet allegedly detained both men and warned them not to attend.
Two days later, the two men were arrested by Israeli forces, along with a third of the Hamas cabinet.
Shortly afterwards, on June 30, Israel revoked both men's citizenship and residency rights in Jerusalem, as the onslaught in Gaza intensified.
The tragic cycle of events that action triggered has claimed many hundreds of Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli lives.
Still, Rabbi Froman waits in his Tekoa settlement for a phone call, praying that those responsible may yet be persuaded to return to a peace proposal apparently sabotaged in favour of a war that everyone lost.