TEKOA, West Bank – With a full beard and his attachment to the biblical lands of the West Bank, Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Froman fits the profile of most rabbis in this disputed territory, who see little room for compromise with the Palestinians.
In almost every way, Froman goes against type.
He meets regularly with Muslim sheiks to promote peace, has conferred twice with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and says he would be willing to live in a Palestinian state governed by Arafat.
As a lonely voice among Jewish settlers, he argues a Palestinian state exists in fact, and should be recognized formally.
“We should just love what exists in reality. Whatever reality requires me to do, I will do,” said the 56-year-old son of Polish immigrants to Israel.
For Froman, a former Israeli army paratrooper who has lived in Jewish settlements for 23 years, promoting peace is a job filled with risk.
Palestinian gunmen have frequently ambushed Jewish settlers traveling in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the more than 10 months of fighting. But Froman says he never wants to move from the mountains where shepherd prophets roamed in biblical times, even if control of the area shifts to the Palestinians.
In his studies to become a rabbi, Froman grew to view peace as the ultimate goal of religion, and this brought him to an intense study of Islam. Now he believes that only mutual recognition – the formation of a Palestinian state that would contain Jewish settlements – would bring peace.
In his search for a way to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Froman has developed a relationship with Talal Sidr, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Cabinet.
The pair want to work out a joint declaration acceptable to both sides that condemns the current violence. Toward this end, Froman arranged a meeting recently between Sidr and Israeli Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron.
“We’re trying to calm the situation,” Sidr said of the meetings, which have not produced a declaration.
Froman and Sidr’s cooperation is unusual. While religious figures in some areas of conflict lead the drive for peace, Jewish and Muslim clerics alike are sometimes accused of stirring up passions in speeches with strong partisan political messages.
Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also met with Froman recently, told him they would welcome a joint peace declaration, he says.
Both sides use Froman and Sidr as go-betweens.
Outside his modest home in the Tekoa settlement that overlooks rocky hills topped with Palestinian villages, Froman talks about his efforts to promote reconciliation.
“I have friends who want to throw the Arabs off this land, and I have friends who want to throw the Jews off this land,” he said, his long, graying sidelocks blowing in the wind. “Both those ways of thought don’t accept reality. If we want peace, we have to accept reality.”
Froman’s views have virtually no political support among the 200,000 Jewish settlers, who generally hold right-wing political views and oppose territorial compromises with the Palestinians. And some Israelis see him as a little bizarre.
For some, it seems otherworldly to hear him compare the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to that of a married couple: Like partners in love, he says, the sides developed unrealistic expectations that were bound to lead to a fight.
“Some people are so infatuated with love, dreaming so much, that they forget about their partner,” he said, smiling.
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