SEVILLE - Spanish tourists who walked into the dining hall of the Barcelo Gran Hotel in Seville this week would probably find it hard to believe that the people who were engaged in a relaxed conversation at the next table were an Israeli Knesset member, a Palestinian diplomat, a former Jordanian minister and an Egyptian professor.
The annual meeting of the EU-Israel Forum in Seville is one of dozens of conferences at which Israelis meet Arabs, particularly Palestinians from the territories. Because of the violence at home, they take themselves far away, to Spain, Norway, Greece, Turkey and even the United States. They cross seas and oceans to convince the other side of the justice of their cause, but also to gain a better understanding of the sufferings of the other side.
Sometimes they quarrel and raise their voices. Sometimes one has the feeling that if they were left in the same room for a day or two, they would emerge with a solution to all the struggles over land, water and airspace that have kept generations of politicians in business.
British parliamentarian Peter Mandelson, former Northern Ireland secretary and member of cabinet, brought with him to Seville his rich experience as a negotiator in the talks that preceded the Good Friday Agreement. "The difficult task is to see the conflict from the other person's standpoint," says Mandelson. "Why are they acting this way? Why are they refusing to act? Why is compromise difficult? Why are they using this language? Why are their leaders apparently so cowardly? Why are they fearful of taking greater risks with their own supporters?"
Politicians, of course, don't lose sleep over questions like these. They are preoccupied with the upcoming primaries. Attempts to understand your neighbor's troubles don't generate headlines. Mandelson's words have a direct bearing on Israel and the territories. "Ultimately," he says, "conflict resolution does not rest on lawmaking or on constitutional settlements. It requires values - human, civic, social values - triumphing over violence, over denial of rights, over a desire to vanquish. Only strong enduring values are capable of replacing the prejudices that fuel violence. You can soften, mediate, channel prejudices, but only building up a body of different values keeps a peace process going in the long run." Herein lies Mandelson's greatest hopes for the durability of the peace process in Ireland.
The Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) is one of the organizations that has been working for years to foster the values Mandelson is talking about. In a letter sent out this week, IPCRI directors Dr. Gershon Baskin and Dr. Zakaria al-Qaq call on leaders in the region and the Western world to make the establishment of a Palestinian civil society a top priority. They warn that if something is not done soon, the vacuum created by the destruction of the Palestinian Authority institutions will be filled by religious fundamentalists, radicals and street gangs, turning the territories into another Algeria.
The intifada, they say, has already cost the two sides nearly $10 billion. With half of this gargantuan sum, an Israeli-Palestinian-international foundation could have rehabilitated all the refugees in Lebanon and persuaded most of the settlers to go home. Why should hundreds of thousands of refugees thrown into camps in Lebanon and tens of thousands of Israelis sent to the occupied territories have to wait until their political leaders reach an agreement on who controls the walls under the Temple Mount?
Sometimes it is difficult to understand how millions of people, Israelis and Palestinians, so eager for peace according to the surveys, can stand idly by and allow themselves to be deceived by leaders who propel them from one war to the next. With the help of "popular" leadership and cooperation between neighbors, civil societies can bend politicians to their will. They have the power not only to build trust and understanding between peoples, but also to shatter myths and create a new reality.
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