I met Klil Agassi, project manager at the Geneva Initiative for a deeper explanation of what it’s all about…

So, what is the Geneva Initiative?

The Geneva Initiative became an organization in 2003, after high ranking people from both sides presented a joint model for a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement known as the Geneva Accords. The organization has two offices – one in Ramallah which covers the West Bank and Gaza strip and the second works in Israel, from its offices in Ramat Gan. Both sides work together, as well as with the international community, to aid the conflict’s resolution.

You said ‘became an organization,’ what do you mean?

The Initiative promotes political ideas and supports political processes and negotiations when they occur. At the same time, both sides hold educational activities for different target audiences, including politicians and decision makers, media people and influencers, audiences that are not traditionally known for supporting a two-state solution (on the Israeli side for example, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, members of the SHAS party, members of the Likud party, etc.), and groups that are not represented adequately in the decision making circles, like women and young people. Also, dozens of the new coalition members, including ministers, both support and are active in the initiative.

How is the promotion of ideas achieved?

Through symposiums, seminars, workshops, visits and mostly joint meetings between the two sides. The Initiative works towards enriching knowledge, providing tools for understanding the political picture and becoming familiar with the narratives of the other side. For example, this is how many Palestinians learn about Jerusalem’s importance to the Jewish people and many Israelis educate themselves about how Palestinian society sees the refugee issue. At the same time, there are discussions about current events and the best ways to metamorphose from the present situation to the day when we can end the conflict. The Initiative proves daily that there’s an agreement and there is a partner.

For instance, a panel I participated in entitled Who’s guarding? Where are the walls? From right to left: Yoni Eshpar, Yehudit Oppenheimer, Ksenia Svetlova and Samah Salaime.

I cut myself off from the world for a couple of days, and despite already being familiar with the subject, I learned new things and took part in a fascinating meeting with an extraordinary group of strong diverse women holding important and influential positions; who funds this?

The Initiative’s activities are possible thanks to donations from both private citizens and international public or government funds. All donations are put towards the designated activities of holding discussions, meetings and political education that allow the organization to increase its chances to change our present reality in Israel. We all already know that if we don’t talk to each other – it won’t end.

Klil, you led our amazing group, and I’ve also seen you at a pre-meeting – tell us a little about yourself…how and why you joined?

I’m Klil Agassi, Toam’s mother and Yonatan’s partner, a project manager for the Geneva Initiative and a PhD student of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. I returned to Israel after a few years in the US, I had my daughter here and went back to working ‘in the field’ that I had missed so much while I was in ensconced in Academia.  I have a master’s degree in mediation and conflict resolution. I’ve worked for years as a group facilitator, coordinator and program manager in organizations specializing in the promotion of a joint society of Jews and Palestinian Israelis. I joined the Geneva Initiative because I  saw a close connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. I wanted to focus on the demarcation between the internal and external conflicts as well as work towards a conciliation process and trust building between Jews and Palestinians, in and out of Israel. The Geneva Initiative is a unique organization in a many ways: the joint work with West Bank Palestinians, the accessibility to senior Israeli politicians, as well as accessibility to key people in the global diplomatic arena. That’s why in my opinion, working in the organization is a stellar opportunity to work towards ending the conflict through a bi-national and international platform. The target audiences that I find especially engaging are women and young people, which leads me to talk about our female leadership project.

Great, I was curious about this specific project of female leadership…

The project was born from the dissonance created by the fact that if women are involved in peace processes, it raises the probability of reaching a sustainable agreement, and the actual number of women who are part of political decision-making. The project aimed to build a group of influential Israeli women from all walks of society that would be trained to advance discussion of a two-state solution. Presently, there are two groups – one consisting of women in media and women holding senior positions in civilian society organizations and the second consisting of women who are heads of municipal councils, vice mayors and parliamentary candidates. The project includes enriching workshops, seminars, fieldtrips, visits to Ramallah and meetings with influential Palestinian women. One of the challenges of the project was holding the seminar around the same time as Operation “Guardian of the Walls.” Habitually, when in a state of combat and threat, each side tends to converge within its group and the ability to be open and listen to the other side decreases (particularly when the media shows only a partial picture with one narrative.) Since our group had both Arab and Jewish participants, difficulties were uncovered before and during the seminar. Before the seminar there were those who hesitated whether to participate and others who wanted to cancel their participation. Even structurally, I knew that the seminar had to be linked to the happenings outside, even if it meant changing some of the content and speakers on short notice. In addition, I felt that it was important to devote time to what the participants went through during the operation, and of course that brought on a charged and complicated discussion. Eventually, the fact that almost all the ladies who signed up actually participated at this time and we courageously and sincerely addressed the most painful issues, the opportunity to share and be exposed and the connection created by this towards the continuation of the process – these are all small but meaningful achievements for me as project manager.

You’ve sensitively analyzed the complex situation, are you planning more projects?

Another project that’s about to take off and I find exciting is a project for Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. The aim is to provide tools and knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to advance a conciliatory discussion between Jewish Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israeli citizens and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. The project appeals to young leaders from local leadership and media, particularly from mixed cities who have some local public influence. The project will include days of internal discussions and lectures by Israeli and Palestinian lecturers, and visits to Ramallah to meet with Palestinians in senior positions, and activists who support a conciliatory process and attaining a permanent solution to the conflict. Considering the eruptions of violence in mixed cities and the still bleeding wounds, I find this project to be very important in launching a healing process that is so essential, now more than ever.

Sounds fascinating…who else is part of the Geneva Initiative, other than you, whom we’ve met?

Gadi Blatiansky, CEO, Tehila Wenger, Operations Coordinator, Jess Manville, Foreign Relations Director, Yariv Oppenheimer, Director of the Two-State Coalition, and myself, Klil Agassi, Project Manager.

Thanks so much Klil, we’d love to hear updates from you on the Geneva Initiative in general, and your own experiences specifically…