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Before the meeting, which took place at Gutow’s office in New York, two co-facilitators were chosen to prepare the event and to conduct pre-interviews with participants in order to learn about their concerns and expectations. Based on these interviews and preparation work, an agenda for the meeting was set, allowing each side to express their thoughts, but at the same time driving the discussion toward a positive outcome.
“It was a meeting designed to see whether or not we can reach a point where we can talk to each other again.” Gutow said. “And at the end of the meeting, the clearest thing was that we can.”
The five-hour discussion led to an understanding that round-table interfaith meetings should resume, though their format may be tweaked. In addition, participants expressed their wish to reconvene at least once a year. “We will aspire to genuine and ongoing dialogue related to Israeli-Palestinian issues, seeking to identify and discuss, in respect and humility, areas of real or potential disagreement and of real and potential cooperation,” both sides announced in a joint statement at the conclusion of the meeting.
Participants noted in interviews that the most important achievement of the meeting was the understanding that there is a need to rebuild trust between the sides and to consult with each other as partners.
But areas of agreement are limited at this point to goodwill and to procedure. The parties did not discuss the specifics of their disagreements on issues relating to Israel, nor was there any talk of retracting the 2012 letter that was at the root of the dispute. “Instead of looking back at taking back the letter, it is better to look forward to how we can make the issues raised in the letter part of our discussion,” said Hanson, who was among the signers of the letter to Congress. He added that for Christian leaders attending the meeting, the goal was “to reflect on the impact our letter had on the Jewish community.”
Participants from both sides told the Forward that they did not expect any apology or further clarifications and that the focus was on moving forward.
How exactly will similar pitfalls be avoided in the future?
The reconvened round-table discussions and the annual leaders meetings are expected to create an environment in which issues are debated and possibly resolved before the leaders resort to such steps as divestment and calls for cutting aid.
The difference, however, may remain, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), said in an interview. but “when you come to a place of friends, sometimes friends say things that are hard for you to hear, but you can listen because you’re among friends.”