Always look on the bright side

Despite years of failed meetings with Hamas leaders, Rabbi Menahem Froman still believes the organization is a partner for peace.

menachem froman 298 (photo credit: )
menachem froman 298
(photo credit: )
Rabbi Menahem Froman, who has spent the last 25 years meeting with Hamas and other Islamic leaders, trying to forge a peace between Jews and Muslims based on religion and not politics, didn't sleep at all last Wednesday night; the returns of the Palestinian elections had been streaming in. Over the telephone to his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, where he serves as rabbi, I asked Froman which TV or radio stations he'd been tuned to. As he so often does, the rabbi laughed. "Maybe I was praying?" he suggested. His prayers weren't for either Fatah or Hamas to win, but neither would he declare a preference between the two. Hamas's victory is now a fact, a reality, and people have to deal with the reality that God gives them, he said. And so Froman began dealing with the new reality right away, putting in calls to his vast network of Arab contacts to set up a meeting with the Hamas leadership, most likely with the movement's spokesman and incoming Palestinian legislator, Mahmoud Zahar, with whom he has met several times. The ultimate goal of the talks will be the same one he has pursued over the years - to get Hamas to stop terror, to call a cease-fire. "They told me they're busy with haflot [celebrations] now, and that the meeting will take place after the haflot," Froman reported. With his extra-long white beard, his twinkling eyes, his laughter and his indifference to the material world, Froman, 60, is the picture of a holy man. Since he's also a settler from the bosom of Gush Emunim, his meetings over the years with Hamasniks, most notably the assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and with Palestinian nationalists, most notably the late Yasser Arafat, make him a man of conflicting extremes, which in turn makes him catnip to journalists. Yet while Froman is generally dismissed as a luftmensch, a well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided dreamer, reality may be catching up with him. Although the Israeli government, starting with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is dead set against opening talks with the Hamas leadership, and Western leaders are insisting that Hamas renounce terror and recognize Israel's right to exist as conditions for their continued financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli public seems to take a much more conciliatory attitude. A public opinion survey by Dr. Mina Tsemach, Israel's leading pollster, found that Israelis favored talks with a victorious Hamas by a 48 percent to 43% margin. So maybe after 25 years, Froman's time has come. But then again, maybe not. Sitting amid the comfortable disarray of his front room on the rainy Tuesday before the Palestinian election, Froman acknowledges that all his efforts for a quarter-century have amounted to "failure," but blames the failure not on himself nor on Hamas. "The root of the problem is Israeli and American arrogance. Definitely, definitely," he maintains. Citing declarations made to him by Yassin and Zahar of their readiness for a cease-fire and negotiations with Israel, Froman says, "If Israeli governments had grasped these opportunities, not only would a great deal of bloodshed been spared and there have been a cease-fire between our two peoples, but there would have been no attack on the World Trade Center, and no American invasion of Iraq," he says, noting that for a year or two before 9/11, he heard from several Islamic figures of their desire to level the World Trade Center, the symbol of American might. So Froman is in great earnest. He takes his mission with the highest possible seriousness. Occasionally he even refers to himself in the third person. He is long-winded and relentless in his desire to persuade, spinning out metaphor after example after rhetorical question, going off on tangents and coming back to drive home his central idea - that Muslims, including Hamas, are ready to make peace with the Jews of Israel on the basis of their mutual belief in God, but they will not make peace with the State of Israel on the basis of politics, where there is only antagonism and bitterness. And what goes for the State of Israel, he adds, also goes for the US. The one Israeli political leader he names who has helped him, who has seen some utility in his talks, is Shimon Peres - who convinced the Shin Bet, over its objections, to allow Froman to meet with Yassin in Ramle Prison in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, then, Peres has taken the most amenable approach to talking to Hamas now, telling reporters in Davos that the only condition Israel should set is a cessation of terror, not recognition. "Shimon Peres is the youngest politician in Israel, the most open-minded," said Froman. Otherwise, Froman's services have been rejected in Jerusalem. "I sat with Ariel Sharon [during his tenure as prime minister] for an hour and 15 minutes in what was scheduled to be a 25-minute meeting, explaining to him the chances of achieving a hudna [cease-fire with Hamas], and I was so 'successful' that when I got through, Sharon told me he was against a hudna," Froman laughs. Asked to characterize Zahar, he notes that Israeli forces killed one of his sons and badly wounded another in an assassination attempt meant for the Hamas spokesman a year or so ago. "I don't think that's made him any more enamored of the State of Israel," the rabbi noted. "Once he told me, 'Rabbi Froman, one thing I don't understand is how you, as a religious Jew, can accept the rule of a secular government on your land, why doesn't it pain you?' He also has a humane side. Once, when I went to see him in Gaza after a terror attack in which a Jewish woman was killed - and it's against Islamic law to kill women and children - I screamed at him, 'How can you do this and think that God will forgive you?' He answered that I was speaking out of my pain over the killing, and that now is not the time for me to talk about this in a rational manner." During this meeting, Zahar said Hamas "didn't mean" to kill women and children, a claim Froman says he "didn't accept." The rabbi doesn't turn away from Hamas's murderousness, noting that he tells Hamas leaders to their faces that "God has great fire, and he will judge you on Judgment Day." Noting that the moon is a central motif in Islam, he says, "Like the moon, Islam has a dark side and a bright side," and he's betting that even Hamas has a bright side that can be brought out with the right approach. Such an approach, he says, must begin with respect. "From my long hours of talks with them, I see that they feel that America is the strong, the hard, the Goliath with its weapons and economy, and that they are the King David with the power of faith and spirit, and that America sent the secular Zionists to this land to destroy the Islamic tradition, to humiliate the Muslims, to show how we're successful and they're primitive, that we've created this great economy and they live in the woods. "They feel that we don't give them respect, we don't give them their rightful place in the world. As soon as we can project that respect to them, a lot of bloodshed will be spared." So all Hamas wants in return for a cease-fire is respect? "That's the main thing, yes, that's the main thing," Froman says. While Hamas leaders have never accepted Israel's presence, they have at times suggested that they would agree to a long-term hudna in return for Israel's withdrawal to the pre-Six Day War borders, even if these statements alternate with vows to fight Israel to the death unconditionally. As a settler, Froman takes the most optimistic view possible about Hamas's statements - that they could agree to a cease-fire even without Israeli territorial withdrawals. "They do not see the conflict in the same terms as the Israeli political community, which views it as a territorial dispute," he maintains. AS A PRIME example of an agreement he reached with Hamas that went nowhere, Froman recalls that in 1994, after Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped by Hamasniks, his father, Yehuda Wachsman, appealed to Froman through a mutual friend to see if the rabbi could use his contacts with Hamas to free his son. "I called Mahmoud Zahar and offered him a deal in which Ahmed Yassin, who was then in prison, would be released in exchange for Nachshon Wachsman. I asked Zahar where Nachshon Wachsman was and he said he didn't know, he didn't control the cell that kidnapped him, and I think he was telling the truth. "At any rate," Froman continues, "we came up with a detailed program and Zahar agreed to it. The agreement was for Israeli authorities to bring Ahmed Yassin to the Erez junction, where he would declare his readiness for a cease-fire. After that would come a waiting period of up to a day or two, and if in that time Nachshon Wachsman suddenly turned up, freed of his captors, then Ahmed Yassin would be allowed to go to his home in Gaza. If Nachshon Wachsman didn't turn up, then Ahmed Yassin would be taken back to Ramle Prison. "With this agreement," Froman says, "I went through eight different channels to the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, and each time the answer was the same: No. We don't make agreements with terrorist organizations." Instead, Israeli commandos raided the kidnappers in Bir Naballah, near Jerusalem, and during the raid Wachsman was killed. His mother, Esther Wachsman, has spoken out bitterly about Rabin's decision, especially in light of the Netanyahu government's release of Yassin three years later in return for Jordan's release of the Mossad officials who botched the assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Amman. Yehuda Wachsman says Froman's account is correct as far as it goes, but that Hamas had an additional demand in return for his son's release. "Hamas wanted to be accepted as a legitimate partner with the PLO in the [Oslo accord] negotiations with Israel, and the prime minister refused," he said, adding that it's impossible to say if Rabin was right or wrong because it's impossible to know how Hamas would have behaved afterward. But Wachsman considers Froman an asset to Israel "because if the politicians can't talk with Hamas, it's good to have someone who can. [Hamas leaders] appreciate him." Wachsman added that if Hamas stops terror in the coming months, the Israeli government should open negotiations with it. "There's no other way for the violence to end, and putting it off will just mean a few thousand more victims," he said. ANOTHER of Froman's notable failures came in 1997, a few days after Yassin's release. Carrying a letter signed by several prominent rabbis, including then-chief Sephardi Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, calling on Yassin to start a "new page" with Israel, Froman went to Yassin's home. He was accompanied by the head of the moderate "southern" wing of Israel's Islamic Movement, Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, and escorted by Hamas's unofficial representative in the Palestinian Authority government, Imad Falluji, who was dispatched on the mission by Arafat. "They sat us on this stage next to the house, with hundreds of Hamasniks in the crowd, and they invited a tremendous number of Arab media representatives," Froman recalls. "Ahmed Yassin told the people, 'This is Rabbi Froman, I sat with him a few times in prison and Rabbi Froman is always urging me to have a cease-fire between Judaism and Islam - and I agree to a cease-fire. We have our homes and they have their homes, and the border between us is the Green Line.' He said this. He didn't say this in a closed room, or just to a few hundred of his followers, but in front of the cameras and media from all over the Arab world. "And the response from the Israeli government? Nothing. No response," he continues. "So after two weeks, he comes out with a new statement that the State of Israel has no right to exist, that they won't agree even to a border at Tel Aviv, and what's worse, he gave his encouragement to terror. So you can say that he lied to Rabbi Froman, and the truth is what he said two weeks later. Or you can say that he changed his declaration because he didn't get a response [from the government of Israel]." DR. MENACHEM KLEIN, an expert on Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University, is sympathetic to the idea of Israel talking with Hamas, but says Froman's so-called understandings with the organization are misleading. "I'm afraid his assumption that the conflict is a religious-cultural one and not a national-political one is not completely acceptable to Hamas. Hamas is a national-religious movement, so I'm sure that they manage the dialogue with Rabbi Froman on a religious basis that they both can understand - on God, on religious commitment, on Sharia [Islamic law] and Halacha [Jewish law] - but if the national element is missing, then the common ground is limited." Klein thinks Hamas leaders agree to meet with Froman so they can pass messages through him to the Israeli government. (Froman says he "passes" messages from Hamas to the Israeli government only via media interviews; he doesn't "brief" anyone when he returns from those meetings.) Klein also notes that the relatively moderate statements Yassin made during his early prison meetings with Froman marked the beginning of Hamas's "doubletalk." "These statements fell to the wayside, they never guided the movement. They were seeds, but they never ripened," Klein says, placing part of the blame on the Israeli government for showing no interest in pursuing them. THE FIGHTING between the Muslims and Jews is a "tragic misunderstanding," according to Froman. I ask him if he doesn't think Hamas is anti-Semitic, and he says this is a complete misreading of the Islamic fundamentalism. "Islam has adopted some anti-Semitic elements... you see it on the Hizbullah television station, where they've adopted blood libels in the manner of European anti-Semitism, but this is a marginal phenomenon," he says. "This idea about anti-Semitism grows out of the close-mindedness of Zionist Jews who think Zionism is Judaism, so if someone is anti-Zionist, which Hamas definitely is, he's also anti-Semitic," he said, recalling that an Iranian rabbi told him that after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeni told the Iranian Jewish community that his movement opposed Zionism but not Judaism. So I asked Froman about the attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against Jews overseas, about the cries of "itbach al yahud" - "death to the Jews" - isn't that anti-Semitism? "Of course, but where does it come from?" he asks. "When Jews say that Zionism is Judaism, then Muslims believe it, too, and they think that by attacking any Jew, they're attacking Zionism." It would be hard to make the case that Froman's contacts with Hamas hurt Israel or Israelis. About the only people who seem upset by him are the religious right-wingers who consider him a traitor. His intentions are clearly faultless. Moreover, the Israeli government has come around to his view that it is worth making agreements with terrorists if they can get Israeli hostages freed. Beyond this, though, Froman's take on Hamas seems far-fetched at minimum. To suggest that Hamasniks want respect above all is not even to take their ideological commitment seriously. And to think that territory isn't at the heart of what they want is likewise beyond the pale. Finally, failing to recognize Hamas as an anti-Semitic movement is just mystifying, unless he is confusing Hamas with all of Islam, which he may well be doing. So as he prepares for his meeting with the new rulers of Palestine, if Froman isn't hurting Israel's effort to deal with Hamas, it's probably even less likely that he can offer Israel much help on this matter, either.