Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Yakov Margi, of the Shas Party, took part in a two-day seminar recently attended by other party members and a number of former Palestinian officials.
The seminar, which was organized by the Geneva Initiative, included a tour of the future separation fence near Jerusalem. “We didn’t change the world, but it is definitely important to talk,” said former Palestinian negotiator Sufian Abu Zaida.
Margi was also optimistic. “When you meet people and ask them questions you get different proportions,” he said.
“I don’t know if they changed their minds, but this was not my aim,” Abu Zaida continued. “The questions they asked were not even connected to the Left or Right, but rather to all sorts of myths in Israel like there being no Palestinian peace partner. I had to stand up to them and tell them about my viewpoint.”
Abu Zaida added that the Shas Party members were especially interested in predictions about September, when the Palestinians plan to declare statehood. “We discussed it and it turns out they have many opinions on the matter,” he said.
Margi claims the debates that took place may have opened up a possibility of ending the conflict, but only under certain conditions.
“If indeed there is a Palestinian peace partner that wants to end the conflict and the claims, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and an end to the refugee issue, I believe most of the Israeli people will support peace with the Palestinians,” he said.
Abu Zaida stressed that the Palestinians don’t view Shas as extremist, despite its right-wing tendencies. “They said that the one who determines their final opinion is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, not Eli Yishai,” he said.
Margi, for his part, appears to confirm this. “Once the rabbi knows a peace agreement will prevent bloody conflict he will support it. Shas has already proven itself to be a pragmatic party,” he said.
Shas was not a random choice for participation in the seminar, according to Geneva Initiative chief Gadi Baltiansky. “Shas is a deciding factor in the government, and the positions of most of its leaders do not negate those of the Geneva Initiative,” he said.
“Widening knowledge, exposure to Palestinians, and studying the solutions will lead Shas to the conclusion that there are alternatives to the slope down which Israel is sliding.”