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J (San Francisco Jewish Newspaper): "Talk to us: the future depends on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue" by Noa Epstein & Abed Eriqat

Peace Now Youth Dialogue Coordinators discuss their recent U.S. tour (also published by Common Ground News Service)

5/29/08

When you live 10 minutes apart - but worlds away - you can always learn essential things from each other, even after five years of friendship and hundreds of hours together.

The two of us recently concluded a 10-day speaking tour in the United States to introduce our Israeli-Palestinian dialogue program to Americans. Spending the better part of every day together, we discovered more about each other and about the conflict that surrounds our daily lives. Most of all, we discovered that dialogue - even among committed peace activists such as ourselves - can reinforce the conviction in the viability of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

We met five years ago at a summer camp in Maine that brings together Arab and Jewish children to learn about each other and peace. Building on our friendship and training, two years ago we established the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue program for young professionals.

We spent dozens of hours planning and organizing intensive seminars for Israeli and Palestinian students. We discussed politics over cappuccino in Tel Aviv and over cardamom coffee in Ramallah. We led Israeli and Palestinian students in drafting recommendations for peace negotiators, and in organizing joint rallies.

Still, our extensive conversations while crisscrossing the United States provided us with new insights.

Abed revealed that working with Israelis to advance peace is his form of resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. As a boy, in his West Bank village of Abu-Dis - just a short drive from Noa's home in West Jerusalem - Abed grew up throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. That was the form of resistance that his friends valued.

When he got involved in dialogue with Israelis, some of his peers shunned him. On campus, Hamas activists posted placards depicting him as a traitor who prematurely normalizes relations with Israelis.

For Abed, a Palestinian patriot, organizing a network of Palestinian students eager to talk peace with Israelis is a more constructive form of resistance than violence. The first time Noa heard Abed say this, at a talk in Washington, D.C., she realized it's incorrect to charge that there is no Palestinian equivalent to the Israeli Peace Now movement.

For Abed, this trip with Noa reinforced the notion that her empathy and compassion for his people ought not be confused with her determination that Israel remain a Jewish democratic state, one that cannot allow an unlimited return of Palestinian refugees.

Noa is a loyal Israeli who wants to build a home in an Israel that is secure and strong, both physically and morally. Abed believes in the moral right of the Palestinians displaced by Israel's creation to return to their homes. Yet we both recognize that the full implementation of this right is unrealistic; insisting on it would be a recipe for perpetual conflict.

For both of us, this trip was inspiring. We were encouraged by Americans' strong support for our win-win message. Some people were surprised at the notion that Israelis have a national security interest in the well-being of an independent Palestinian state, and that Palestinians have an equally vital collective interest in a secure, confident Israel.

Our future well-being and our pursuits of normalcy, dignity and happiness are intertwined. For each of us, they depend on defending the vital interests of national needs and on doing so while not feeding the collective anxieties of the other.

This summer we will celebrate Abed's wedding. It will be a joyous occasion, one marked, however, by a harsh reality. When Noa crosses the concrete wall separating Jerusalem from Abu-Dis, we will be aware of the lives that Abed's future children face - and the lives Noa's future children can expect.

Will Abed's children - and Noa's - be sucked into this ongoing violent conflict? Or will they also be trying to rally their friends, like the two of us, to create a constituency for peace?

We hope that our children won't have to do either one. Our dialogue program for political activists - modest as it may be - urges youngsters to demand and sustain a future peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. By expanding the program - we already have long waiting lists for the upcoming dialogue sessions - we can provide our children a new environment in which dialogue and friendship is a result of peace rather than a means to achieve it.


Noa Epstein, an Israeli student, and Abed Eriqat, a Palestinian lawyer, are the co-directors of Peace Now's Youth Dialogue Program. Peace Now is Israel's oldest and largest peace movement.