Hard Talk

I have written about Yitzhak Frankenthal before, and I will no doubt write about him again, because the man has the gravitas to say just about whatever he wants about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Frankenthal is one of a distinct minority of Israelis and Arabs these days who are engaged in dialogue with their political adversaries.

The last time I wrote about Frankenthal was to tell how the father of a son murdered by a Palestinian terrorist had become Israel’s most eloquent spokesperson for peace. On July 7, 1994, the body of Arik, Frankenthal’s 19-year-old son, was found dumped in a village near Ramallah, riddled with bullet holes and stab wounds. Arik, an IDF soldier and an Orthodox Jew, had been hitchhiking home on leave when he was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists.

Before his murder, Arik had been drawn to the nascent religious Zionist peace movement. He had spoken to his father about Oz V’Shalom/Netivot Shalom, a group that maintains that halacha (Jewish law) requires Israel to compromise with the Palestinians. One month after his son’s death, Frankenthal dissolved his business interests and threw his considerable energies behind Oz V’Shalom — eventually becoming its executive director.

Frankenthal’s authority doesn’t rely solely on tragedy. He is also an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist, a successful Israeli entrepreneur and politically connected. Many readers will be shocked by his statements; few have his credentials.

Last week, Frankenthal came to Los Angeles to raise awareness of his newest project, Parents’ Circle. This is a group of 190 Israeli and 140 Palestinian parents who have lost their children to acts of terror or violence and who have made the commitment to work together in building a consensus for peace.

The European Union gave $450,000 to the group, and it received $1.1 million as part of the Wye River Agreement. The Mitchell Report, not a document full of bright spots, actually singles out Parents’ Circle as one of two cooperative projects doing very important work (the other is the Economic Cooperation Foundation) toward alleviating suffering in the region.

Frankenthal told me that bereaved Palestinian and Israeli parents are meeting “more than ever” to discuss their feelings and differences over the Mideast crisis. The meetings are brutally honest and difficult.

Though the Israeli left is reeling from the backlash against rapprochement, some groups, such as Peace Now, Hand in Hand and Parents’ Circle, forge ahead with dialogue. At the start of Intifada II, Palestinian nonprofit organizations pulled out of Peace Now’s Youth Dialogue Program, which brought together Arab and Jewish teenagers at schools throughout the country. But, according to Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, the group was recently asked to resume dialogue by the largest youth movement in the West Bank, the Nablus Youth Movement. Frankenthal said the point of his group is not to provide healing or closure — he cringes when I speak the words — but to bring about reconciliation. “We cannot forgive them, and they cannot forgive us,” he said. “We are not doing it for us. We are doing it for our people.”

At a meeting in Gaza, a Palestinian father stood up and told Frankenthal, “As a father, I’m sorry you lost your son. But as a Palestinian, I need to tell you I’m happy we killed him, because he was in the army.” Frankenthal rose from his seat. “As a father,” he began, his voice trembling, “I want to pick up this desk and throw it at you. But as an Israeli, I will tell you a story about my son.”

Frankenthal then related how he had once asked Arik what he would do if he were a Palestinian. Arik said he would kill as many Israeli soldiers as possible. “A week later,” Frankenthal said, “he was killed himself.

“Look,” Frankenthal continued, “it’s not easy to sit and talk, but we understand each other. We have both lost kids, and we are not looking for revenge…. There is no question there will be peace between us and the Palestinians; the question is, how many people will die before we make peace?”

Frankenthal said he has come to understand that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak could have sealed a deal with Yasser Arafat by offering the Palestinians de jure sovereignty over the Temple Mount, where they already have de facto rule, in return for Arafat’s forgoing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. “He wanted to buy an $80 watch from Arafat for $60,” Frankenthal explained. If Barak had offered the whole $80, Frankenthal believes, Intifada II could have been averted.

That is a minority opinion in almost all Israeli and Jewish circles, but Frankenthal promotes it fearlessly. “The hardest part for me is to stand in front of my son’s grave,” he told me. “Everything else is small change.”

Parents’ Circle has created a brochure in Hebrew, English and Arabic outlining its views, and intends to distribute it to hundreds of thousands of Jews and Arabs.

When I told Frankenthal about our cover story this week — how Jews and Arab leaders in Los Angeles have alternately suspended their participation in dialogue with one another — Frankenthal waves away their concerns. He has no patience for those on either side who see the current conflict as a reason to suspend dialogue. “Go the opposite way,” he stressed. “Don’t let Hamas win. You need to fight against terrorism and talk. That’s what Rabin said.”

You can learn more about Parents’ Circle by writing to frankent@netvision.net.il .