Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, One Phone Number at a Time

Israeli and Palestinians imagine a new Middle East at a joint congress, but find that the road is long.

Israeli and Palestinian participants of the Public Israeli-Palestinian Congress for Negotiations hold a discussion in Tel Aviv, July 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Anyone caught last Friday at the edge of Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv was liable to think that the new Middle East was coming to fruition before his very eyes. Some 300 Israelis and Palestinians sat around 20 large tables spread out along the boulevard, discussing a solution to the conflict. Each one shared his view quietly and politely. One could imagine at times being in Geneva, if some of the participants hadn’t locked arms during the break to dance, sweating, to the sounds of a darbuka drum and the voice of Umm Kulthum. Border policemen patrolling the area, however, reminded everyone that it will be a long time before peace actually happens.

The meeting, called the Public Israeli-Palestinian Congress for Negotiations, is the initiative of Dr. Sapir Handelman and the Minds of Peace organization, which he founded. Handelman is the head of the Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism at Achva Academic College. He began initiating such meetings during his studies as part of an experiment to build a model for engaging the public in conflict resolution. Friday’s was his largest such meeting to date.

“It won’t work without the public,” says Handelman. “Our leaders are caught in enormous difficulties and fail to talk with each other. Our goal is to create a public congress and generate negotiations that will push the internal leadership." He seeks 1,000 participants from both sides in the next congress.

“If such a thing arises, Abu Mazen and Netanyahu will want to reach an agreement because a new political power will begin,” he predicts, referring to the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

An Israeli and a Palestinian talk during the Public Israeli-Palestinian Congress for Negotiations in Tel Aviv, July 22, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

On Friday, participants were given a little over an hour to agree on a general solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before debating how they would implement it. During this time, one proposal called for two states for two people, another for confederation and a third for internationalizing Jerusalem. Everyone shared their feelings on the proposals; people were mostly attentive.

But here and there one could see disagreements that highlighted the long road that lies ahead. At one table, Faruq from Nablus, who translated the discussion into Arabic, added his personal opinion to each translation. Mira, an Israeli, complained and demanded he stick to what had been said. When one of the participants, David, implied that he could speak for everyone at the table since they were all leftists, Mira jumped in and asked that he not make mistaken assumptions since not all the opinions had been heard. David, annoyed with the interruption, took over the discussion and didn’t let her talk. Their interaction exemplified how the left-wing at times struggles to have a dialogue within its ranks.

One of the participants complained that no right-wing positions were heard.

“You are all activists in left-wing organizations,” she said. “As long as we don’t bring people whose identities were built differently — people who do not compromise on their religion — we won’t make progress. What do we represent as the leftists of Tel Aviv? We need to bring people who oppose peace.”

“If something in the official realm would happen, the right would come,” says Handelman. “Most of the center of Israeli society was not represented here.” Based on his experience, he says, “when there are right-wing participants it is easier to reach agreements than with left-wing people because they are more practical. The hard left is insulted in the name of the Palestinians. They speak in their name, but when a Palestinian comes along and says, 'stop being insulted in my name,' the leftists lie on the floor and start crying that there is no partner.” Handelman adds that debating in English is excellent for negotiations because neither side speaks English well, resulting in significantly less arguing.

At Faruq and Mira's table, however, they spoke excellent Hebrew and Arabic. Perhaps it is one of the reasons they had a hard time arriving at a consensus. “We are here 100 years on the land, speaking and not speaking, and all our neighbors make a soccer field out of the country," said Faruq. "Our words are just words. I want to make a factory for peace, not ‘Netanyahu peace’ — I want ‘Sadat peace.'”

Someone cut him off, asking, “And what happened to Sadat?” There was silence.

When the hour was over, the participants at the table realized there was a lot of dialogue, but they hadn't reached any agreements. Someone suggests that everyone should exchange telephone numbers. “If you manage to say that we exchanged phone numbers it will be the biggest success, greater than any solution,” one of them said. And so, not far from the place in which the State of Israel was declared, a lightning solution to the conflict was found. However, precisely at this optimistic moment, the Red Alert application that warns of rocket sirens across Israel notified its users that a new version was available.

At the end of a lunch that lacked any Eastern Mediterranean motif, the participants gathered on the lawn to discuss their conclusions. One representative holding a Palestinian flag stood behind the speakers.

“Where is the Israeli flag?” someone shouted, and an Israeli representative hurried to stand with an Israeli flag. Unlike the Palestinian flag, the Israeli one was lacking a pole and leaned lethargically sideways. “Why the Israeli flag without a pole?” someone yelled at her, and she was forced to stretch it out herself. While the group sat together, the jeep drove by and the driver shouted twice, “All Arabs are terrorists!”

“Several hundred Palestinians and Israelis who chose to handle the conflict around a table and not with a weapon came here,” said one of the speakers at the culmination of the event. “The most important thing was the understanding that there is hope. We understood that there were people across from us. We managed to understand that we are not facing an enemy, but rather people.”

“Let’s not wait for the organizations that set up meetings between us,” said a representative from the table that exchanged phone numbers. She told the crowd what her table had done.

“Enough blood. Enough occupation. Enough violence,” said Ibrahim Enbawi, a board member of Minds of Peace, who organized the Palestinian side of the event. “Open your heart, open your mind. If the people arise, we will change a lot of things.”