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Washington Jewish Week: "A piece of Mideast peace - Dialogue duo in D.C. to push hope amid gloom"

Article on U.S. visit of Peace Now's Youth Dialogue Co-Coordinators, Noa Epstein and Abed Erekat
Noa Epstein & Abed Erekat - Peace Now Youth Dialogue Coordinators

5/8/08

by Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor

The Israelis and the Palestinians have finally made peace.

At least a few of them have.

The symbolic accord (in the form of a broad conceptual framework for an agreement) was crafted in the fall during a seminar involving 50 Israeli and Palestinian college students meeting in a village midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

They negotiated under the supervision of two pragmatic optimists (one Arab, the other Jewish) connected with the Youth Dialogue program of the organization Peace Now.

The duo -- an Israeli peace activist from Tel Aviv and a like-minded Palestinian from the West Bank -- was in Washington, D.C., last week as part of a four-city U.S. tour aimed at maintaining moral and financial support for additional youth seminars and demonstrating that an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not inconceivable, according to Noa Epstein, the Israeli half of the partnership.

"The idea is not to lose hope," said Epstein, 25, a full-time activities coordinator for Peace Now who has a degree in international relations from Hebrew University. "If there is no hope, there is no point in staying in Israel. You have to cling to optimism and be an active optimist."

She works in conjunction with Abed Erekat, a 27-year-old lawyer who lives in the West Bank community of Abu Dis, and whose command of English is not as accomplished as Epstein's. Erekat said negotiations (at any level) are important because they serve as "nonviolent resistance to the [Israeli] occupation." Asked if he, too, is optimistic, Erekat said: "Yes, but there must be a lot of work."

Epstein and Erekat met as teenagers when they both participated in Seeds of Peace, a U.S.-based program that brings together young leaders from conflict-torn regions and teaches them how to nurture coexistence and reconciliation. They combined forces about two years ago to rekindle the Youth Dialogue program, which had been essentially dormant since the Second Intifada in 2000.

"We had to break out of the cycle of silence," explained Epstein, a native of Jerusalem.

Epstein and Erekat have since orchestrated two seminars involving Israeli and Palestinian students -- the fall 2007 session, and the initial get-together in late 2006. A total of 100 individuals have participated, representing each side equally. The Jewish state contingent includes Israeli Arabs.

The basic framework agreement the students hammered out last fall calls for a two-state solution to the conflict, with the borders of each state roughly coinciding with the 1967 lines of demarcation, according to Epstein. The Israelis and the Palestinians would each have a national capital in Jerusalem, with sovereignty of the Old City portion of Jerusalem being covered under a joint or international agreement.

In exchange for Israel removing its settlements in the territories and recognizing in principle the Palestinians' "right of return" to Israel proper, the Palestinians would not exercise that right. Palestinian refugees would be compensated financially, although the issue of Middle Eastern Jews who were displaced in 1948 and thereafter was not discussed, according to Epstein.

The agreement took about three days to put together, and the process was often "difficult," Epstein said. "The atmosphere was definitely charged."

Contributing to the tension was that most, if not all, of the Palestinian student negotiators had to pass through Israeli checkpoints to attend the seminar. In addition, several of the Israeli student participants either had served in the military or had firsthand experience with Palestinian-initiated rocket fire from Gaza, according to Epstein, who has not served in the Israel Defense Forces because she is a conscientious objector. (Her stance on military service, she emphasized, is not an official Peace Now position.)

Ori Nir, a spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, said although Erekat has been "ostracized to a certain extent" by fellow Palestinians who have accused him of consorting with the enemy, "there are many people he knows who really want to be part of such dialogue sessions in the future."

The U.S. tour, which ran from April 27 through Tuesday, began in Los Angeles, and then stopped in Chicago, Washington and finally New York. One of the goals of the tour, said Epstein, was to convey the actual and potential impact of the youth seminars, which "you can't always measure for today and tomorrow." However, the participants are politically involved and may some day become leaders of their respective countries, she added. In the meantime, Epstein continued, the student negotiators have shown through their ability to analyze and surmount "deeper underlying obstacles to [resolving] the conflict," that hopes for Mideast peace are not based on "theoretical, virtual promises."

The Washington leg of the tour included a reception a week ago Thursday at the APN local office in the District, a briefing Friday morning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also in the District, and a presentation that afternoon at an American University class on conflict resolution.

About 25 students attended the class, during which Epstein and Erekat discussed the youth seminars, noting that there is a waiting list of students who are eager to participate. They then answered questions.

Attendee Dan Rosa, a Jewish freshman at A.U., described the duo as "smart, determined individuals who are convinced that peace can happen if the populations get behind the governments and push for peace." He said he is now "a bit more optimistic" about the Israeli-Palestinian situation than he had been before he sat in on Friday's session.