‘Let’s have a cup of coffee together” is an invitation with much charm. To drink a cup of coffee with someone often implies a moment of relaxation, of intimacy, of an intriguing discussion, a moment of curiosity, maybe even new friendship in the comforting surroundings of a café. Outside one’s country, it is an occasion to observe people in a different cultural environment.
Cafés often typify a culture – Parisian cafés reflect Parisian charm and chic, Roman espresso bars combine ancient history with modern fashion, Manhattan cafés sizzle with energy, Rio probably serves the best coffee blends, Tel Aviv cafés speak of the open mindedness of the city.
The company is no less important. I confess to an addiction for enchanting coffee places. I have been to many, often worked and written in them, and met some of the most fascinating people there.
Letting imagination and the senses take us away, I list the seven people I would most like to sip a cup of coffee with as well as the environments in which these encounters could take place.
1) Woody Allen
A cup of coffee with Woody Allen at the famous Elaine’s restaurant in Upper East Side Manhattan, where Mr. Allen had a regular corner table. The guests at Elaine’s could all be taken from his many New York-based movies: intellectuals from the Upper East Side talking abstractly about abstract art, Jewish families discussing in loud voices their recent social experience at a Reform synagogue, an NYU professor with John Lennon spectacles engaged in an intimate, flirty conversation with a gorgeous Mia Farrow look-alike student; all creating a Manhattan (the movie) landscape.
Coffee is served in big, simple mugs with New York brownies on the side. Woody Allen, to me, is a genius of the cinema; he introduces us brilliantly into the neurotic souls of human beings, mainly his own, with a fabulous perspective of humor. A lover of peoples’ weaknesses, he is an admired misanthrope with whom a discussion can only be fascinating. I tend to distinguish between people who love his movies and those who do not.
I would love to bring up with him his complex ties to Israel and his criticism of its policies. Recently I actively corresponded with him in relation to Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday. He sent a typical Allen greeting to the president: “Happy birthday to a great Jew, from a very bad one...”
Indeed, a fascinating Jew.
2) Monica Bellucci
An espresso with Monica Bellucci at the Terrazza del Hotel Eden in Rome. This Roman terrace, on which Federico Fellini wrote many of his scripts, offers the best views of this Eternal City, with Michaelangelo’s dominating Cappella of St. Peter’s at the center. Its reflection in the eyes of Monica Bellucci is even more breath-taking.
One of Fellini’s greatest movies, La Dolce Vita, was produced underneath the terrace on the Via Veneto. It is doubtful that its decadent heroes have made it up to the Eden. Bellucci is one of my favorite actresses. She recently starred in a Bosnian movie, Milky Way, about love, war and peace; the very topics of our hoped for conversation.
The espresso can awaken the old ghosts of Rome, and is served in the most aesthetic little cups. In the dolce vita, aesthetics outbid ethics. Bellucci is both a beauty and a humanitarian. We speak French, to spare her my poor Italian. We talk about diplomacy and acting. I have always believed in the kinship between the two professions.
In both, you represent something, somebody, besides yourself. In both, you have to convince and attract a wide audience. Both professions require you to understand other human beings and reflect them to others. Both good actors and good diplomats have to be honest with themselves as to whom or what they represent (and not their egos) and to serve universal values and work for good causes. Above all, they must create a language that makes their messages understood by diverse cultures.
This language serves an interesting discussion with an interesting lady over the best espresso Rome has to offer.
3) Barack Obama
A cup of coffee with Barack Obama, who is, to me, one of the great figures of American history. Americans tend to appreciate their presidents after they leave office; that was the case even with very popular presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Obama is already a historic figure by being the first African-American to have been elected to the highest office. He is a great reformer both at home where he advocates greater social empathy, and abroad where he advocates collective diplomacy at the expense of the use of force.
In his presidency, Obama has stood by his values. Most of his critics don’t like his values. He is a rare combination of a Chicago political operator and an in-depth, brilliant intellectual.
The place I would like to have the pleasure of coffee with President Obama is Air Force One. It’s the one place in which the leader of the free world can talk without being constantly distracted. One can get good brewed coffee on Air Force One in mugs with the presidential seal. I would love to hear from President Obama about his view of American strategic options in the world through the use of its soft power. I would also make an effort to convince him to reengage in the Middle East peace process, despite the recent disillusion. I would claim that while most of the region’s political leaders are hopeless when it comes to courageous decision-making, the people of the region are not. Sixty-five percent of the region’s people are under the age of 30 and I witness on social networks that most of them are pragmatists who yearn for good education, good employment and peaceful coexistence. The fundamentalists on both sides – the people of violence and racism – are effective but a minority. America needs to couple negotiation diplomacy with public diplomacy to engage the peoples’ voices for peace. I would also say to him that a good friend of Israel is a friend of peace and of a two-state solution and ask him not to give up on peace. Above all, I would do what Israelis do least well: I would listen to him.
4) Marwan Barghouti
From Air Force One to an Israeli prison cell. The prison in which he is being held for five life sentences is dark, noisy and dirty despite an almost unbearable smell of Lysol. The meeting must be short and supervised, and the Israeli “mud coffee” tastes accordingly. Marwan Barghouti is most probably serving his sentence for good reason; he was convicted of committing several terror killings during the second intifada. But whether we like it or not, he is the most popular political figure of Palestine and is viewed as a Palestinian Mandela. If we want to negotiate peace effectively, we need to deal with those who have popular legitimacy on the other side. We (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu) spoke to Yasser Arafat, who committed many more gruesome attacks. Peace is made with enemies.
Barghouti used to be a peace activist and supported the Oslo process. He became disillusioned and took a wrong turn, which should not be condoned.
I would like to hear from him his view of a peaceful solution that gives Palestine independence and Israel security. It should be clear to him that the right of return for Palestinians is out of the question. I would also like to discuss the issue of leadership with him; the ability to take unpopular decisions in favor of a historic compromise and reconciliation. Popularity, which he has, must be translated into doing the right thing. There is no future for Palestinians without peaceful coexistence with Israel, and in the process, a Palestinian leader must be honest with his people and make difficult compromises.
Barghouti may be the right person, even if for a different government, to speak with about conflict resolution before his eventual release.
5) Dani Dayan
A cup of coffee with MK Dani Dayan, one hopes in his future home west of the Green Line. Dayan is a sympathetic person who speaks with relative pragmatism of his vision of a Greater Israel. He understands the Left better than most of his friends who are blinded by fanaticism.
While I wish him personally well, I would prefer to have him as a neighbor in Tel Aviv, divorced from the dangerous illusion that settling on land which is not ours is still possible or moral. He knows my views that the settlements are a catastrophe for our identity, morality, security and international relations.
And yet it is important to talk across ideological divides as long as there is a common humanity free of racism toward our neighbors. We must speak about the future of Israel, within a two-state solution, which undoubtedly will come about one day, as no occupation of another people can survive. In this process, we must avoid civil strife and aspire to new common aims and mutual respect. Dayan seems a good partner for such an exchange.
6) Yuval Diskin
Israel needs a new leadership. Former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin is a possible future prime minister. I worked most of my life with Shimon Peres, who represented the generation of the founding fathers and placed country before party, and courage before popularity. The current leadership is hopeless, egocentric, superficial, striving for no more than political survival. That possibly could work for Denmark, not here. We are in need of a leader who has an intelligent, experienced view of reality and a vision for the future. Diskin could be that person. He has the necessary security experience, is a good analyst and has the ability to take the right decisions, despite risks to his personal popularity.
I saw him in my previous functions, fighting terror with effectiveness and without compromise. Yet he never believed that the solution to the Palestinian issue is a military one, and always kept relations of mutual respect with his Palestinian counterparts.
Drinking coffee in the prime minister’s office is a bureaucratic cult. I would like to hear from this “gatekeeper” how he would keep the country secure from Arab terror (as well as Jewish “price tags”), and how he, a man from the battlefield, could bring us a realistic peace.
7) Paul Auster
An inspirational coffee with this brilliant American author and his Norwegian wife, the author Siri Hustvedt, at a Jewish diner in Brooklyn, where they live. Auster is a man of conscience and values, as he expressed in his last visit to Israel. He refused to visit Turkey at the time when journalists were being arrested there (2012). A talk with him is like reading his books. As an Israeli, there is much to learn from him as he has a sense of existentialism and of the absurd, and identity is a central theme of his thinking and writing.
We would compare notes between New York and Tel Aviv. He is passionate about what is happening in our region, we meet indeed on the issue of identity – so central to human well-being and to Israel’s survival. For Auster, as for us, identity is very much about coming to terms with oneself by accepting reality and the ambiguities of life.
8) Alone in Havana
In Havana, drinking coffee in a beautiful café is part of the culture of life. It is better consumed in good company, but has its charm also by oneself. Havana is a city in which one inhales a rich culture, with the rhythm of Cuban Jazz, good Cuban coffee, sometimes after a refreshing Mojito. Havana seems as if it has stopped in the ’50s, with the old American sedans and people wearing straw hats, old-fashioned sunglasses, and smoking good, long cigars. Placed back in time, sipping Cuban coffee, one gets a better perspective about the alternatives for the future.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and founder of the YaLa Young Leaders peace movement, and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.