September 6, 2012

The cheerful chanting of “heveinu shalom aleichem” (“we have brought peace unto you”) from the aisles of Air Canada flight 84 was the perfect segway into the first Olive Tree Initiative meeting in Tel Aviv.

Credit: Claudia Cheffs

Almost as soon as the plane landed, the group was sitting in a circle with Yarden Leal, the director of Development and External Relations for the Peres Peace House.

Before introducing us to the organization, Yarden initiated a game in which we passed a ball around the circle, and whenever the ball was tossed, the catcher would have to use two words to describe their current feelings and expectations for the future of the trip.

Not everyone had slept on the flight, so the ball was not always caught with the ease one would expect from a group of able-bodied college students. But, in this aspect our clumsiness was a source of much half-hearted glee.

After the game, Yarden explained the mission and work of the Peres Peace House.

Yarden said the Peres House was founded in 1996 in order to keep the peace process with the Palestinians in motion following the first electoral victory of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The organization is named after current Israeli President Shimon Peres – a longtime proponent of the peace process – who incidentally has never held any position within the organization.

The Peres Peace House is officially apolitical.

Instead of debating the details of a final status agreement, they organize people-to-people programs between Israelis and Palestinians that are meant to lay the social foundation for an eventual peace between the two peoples.

Only a couple hours after stepping off the plane in Tel Aviv, the Olive Tree Initiative met with Yarden Leal of the Peres Peace House. Credit: Claudia Cheffs

They pursue this goal through the organization’s four departments: 1) Well-being; 2) Peace education through sports; 3) Business, environment, agriculture, and water; and 4) Civil leadership.

After her presentation, students asked Yarden a few questions based on their previous education on the conflict and peace process. One of the more interesting questions that arose was whether the programs that the Peres Peace House constitute what many critics of the peace process call “normalization” – portraying the two sides within a false paradigm of parity.

Those who oppose normalization reject the notion that Israel and the Palestinians suffer equally and have equal responsibilities in compromising for peace. Yarden answered very openly.

Yarden said that at the present time, when the Israeli separation barrier prevents most attempted terror attacks and when most organized Palestinians are committed to nonviolence, Israelis do not feel the conflict.

However, the absence of urgency on the Israeli side should not serve to forestall a final status agreement, which the Palestinians badly need. Israel has made its terms clear, and no Palestinian bargaining chip short of the threat of terror will exert enough pressure upon Israel to compromise on those terms.

Thus, the only way forward – assuming that bilateral negotiations are the correct path toward peace – is through normalization.

While this answer was certainly not satisfying for everyone, but its logic was seen to be sound, and for those in the room who did not want to see a third intifada, it was a realistic assessment of what it will take to get negotiations going again.

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