Effort aimed at showing mostly right-wing immigrant population that the Palestinians are partners for peace.
The assumption of high-ranking Palestinian officials is that since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination, Israel’s leadership has had a negative and misleading impact on the Israeli public in all aspects related to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In an attempt to overcome what they see as a major obstacle on the road to a peace agreement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided almost a year ago, soon after the General Assembly granted Palestine a non-member status at the UN, to establish a special unit: The Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society.
The timing was hardly coincidental: Palestinian officials assumed that the way it was presented to the Israeli public, the diplomatic success at the UN might be interpreted by Israelis as a substitute or contradiction to a bilateral dialog. Since then, the committee has engaged in an active attempt to reach out to all segments of Israeli society. Last Thursday, the first meeting was held in the West Bank city of Ramallah with representatives of the Russian community in Israel, members of the left-oriented organization “Our Heritage-Charter for Democracy.”
“This is the first time we meet with Israeli Russians,” Mohammed Al-Madani, a member of the Central Committee of Fatah and chairperson of the Interaction Committee told i24news. “I hope that many more meetings will follow. We know perfectly well that this community is considered to be hard core right wing, but this is up to the Israeli side to change it. Our role is to prove you have a partner and that we have a real interest in the success of the renewed dialog.”
Elias Zananiri, former spokesperson for Palestinian of Internal Security and an adviser to the Interaction Committee, claims that the most disturbing factor for the Palestinian leadership is what he interprets as the inexplicable indifference of the Israeli public to the pivotal role of the conflict in their lives. The committee took upon itself to try and break through that layer of indifference with a positive approach.
One of the more positive and misunderstood factors in any future solution, claims Zananiri, is the Arab Initiative. “It holds a great promise for the Israelis, but they don’t know it, either because they are not being told the whole truth by their leaders, or because they neglect important aspects of it,” he told i24news. “President Abbas told me that at the beginning of their dialog that even former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to understand the full beneficial aspect of the Arab Initiative for Israel.”
In an effort to create a hospitable atmosphere, some Russian-speaking Palestinians, graduates of universities in the former Soviet Union were invited to participate in the meeting. The intriguing get together was therefore conducted mainly in Russian and in Arabic. Though all segments of Israeli society are targeted by the interaction committee, the Russian-speaking community gets special attention.
“Yes, in a way they are of special interest to us,” admits Zananiri. “They form a considerable part of Israeli society though they have not directly been part of the conflict for the past six decades. We also target them directly because many of them choose to live in a self- imposed seclusion within Israeli society and continue to consume mainly Russian-speaking media. We believe they are open minded and willing to get the facts as they are, and not in the manipulative way they are being presented to them by their own media.”
Dr. Alla Shainskaya, a senior scientist and chairperson of “Our Heritage” couldn’t agree more. “Russian-language media in Israel distorts the picture of the conflict,” she says. “After a long series of ‘people to people’ encounters with grassroots Palestinians, I made a conscious attempt to reach out to higher echelons and facilitate direct meetings, unmediated and not distorted by media in the Russian language. I notice lately a more enthusiastic response and a growing open mindedness within the Russian community in Israel to take part in those events, especially among the younger generation.”
Thirty-one-year-old Edi Zhensker, executive director of “Our Heritage,” who came to Israel when he was eight, falls into that category. “Younger Russians are certainly more open minded than their parents to Israeli-Palestinian dialog,” he says. “There is a way to influence the parents’ generation through their adult children, and thus reach the whole sector. There are remarkable changes within the Russian-speaking community. This meeting in Ramallah is just the beginning.”
And what in the future? More professional meeting between young Russian speakers and Palestinian journalists, mutual social media projects and maybe, even a a regional version of the old Russian TV hit “What, When and Where” – this time a contest between Israeli newcomers and Russian speaking Palestinians who once enjoyed this famous game on a different continent.
Knesset and government representatives of the Russian immigrant community were less than enthusiastic.
“Israeli Russians might be open minded but they are also very realistic,” says Minister of Immigrant Absrption Sofa Landver. “They might have not been here for the last 60 years but they have been here long enough to go through wars and terror that taught them that there is no partner. Russians, by nature, stay away from illusions”. MK Robert Ilatov, like Landver also from the Yisrael Beteinu party, described the Palestinian claims of distortion by the Russian media as “pure chutzpa.”
“I wonder who is lying to who. It’s not just the Russians, it’s all Israeli society that lost trust in them.”