Leading the Leaders
BY MEREDITH KATZ | On September 29, 1996, fighting flared between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers in the wake of Israel’s opening of an exit to an archaeological tunnel near the El Aksa Mosque. But unknown to the youthful troops, another group of Arab and Israeli teenagers—in Jordan and Egypt as well as in Israel and the Palestinian territories—mobilized for battle. Using their computers, fax machines and telephones, these 16-to-18 year-olds sent e-mails and other messages across their borders seeking a way to end the fighting. They shared their fears and offered each other comfort amidst the growing confusion and uncertainty.
Recalled an Israeli youth: “When everything started, I felt very confused. It felt like my mind was divided into two parts. One part felt protected and secure when I saw the soldiers and tanks getting ready to go into the territories. That part of me felt that we should teach the Palestinians a lesson and show them how powerful we are. But there was another part, a part which was created only after our involvement with Seeds of Peace, that felt that what was happening was wrong—that war is wrong. That part knew that there must be another way, a better way. But most of the people don’t have a second part. I pray that Binyamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat have the second part.”
After these words were sent to the growing network of several hundred Seeds of Peace alumni, an idea began to take shape. Why not expand these thoughts and draft a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian-Egyptian statement that could be sent directly to the leaders themselves? After all, at Seeds of Peace—a conflict-resolution program that has brought together more than 600 Arab and Israeli teenagers at a summer camp in Maine—one of the lessons everyone learned was that peace is too precious to be left to the leaders themselves.
As the death toll in the West Bank mounted, a core group worked into the night to draft a joint declaration. By the time it was concluded, President Clinton had called an emergency summit in Washington. Summoned to the White House were Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. “When out youngsters’ joint declaration arrived on our e-mail, we sent it directly to [then-White House official] Jay Footlik,” recalled John Wallach, the award-winning journalist and founder of Seeds of Peace. “We had no idea what happened to it after that.”
Aware that something more was needed to bring the leaders back to the negotiating table, something to repair their shattered trust, President Clinton decided to use the words of these young Arabs and Israelis. At the start of the second day of meetings, Clinton read aloud the words of these teenagers. “We ask you to reach a compromise, a fast solution to save us from the potential disaster,” the declaration read. “We support you and we are behind you for every step of this long and hard path. Be strong and brave for all of us, for only the brave can make real peace.” It was a small stroke perhaps, but an endearing and human one. It was, after all, the trust they had built and the understanding they had reached while living together at camp in the Maine woods that had compelled them to reach out to the political leaders.
No one believes that even the most compassionate words on paper can extinguish the flames of a century-old conflict. But neither should the role of these teenagers be minimized. They have proved, on countless occasions, that they can be a force for change, even with leaders who at times are stymied by a lack of confidence and understanding. In the five years since Seeds of Peace was founded, these youngsters have had the chance to express their desire to President Clinton on two occasions, to Vice President Gore, to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher on three occasions, and—on four separate occasions—to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Since the September 1993 White House signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles—where the first group of 48 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian graduates were honored guests—Seeds of Peace has produced a cadre of Israeli and Arab teenagers poised to lead their nations toward peace in the twenty-first century.
Bill Clinton has never forgotten the inspiration the first group of youngsters provided on that day he had to persuade Arafat and Rabin to shake hands for the first time. “I met the Seeds of Peace children at the 1993 ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House … these were the children wearing green T-shirts who flanked many of our world leaders and reminded us of the agreement’s true significance to our future,” Clinton recalled. “These young men and women told me that in just a few short weeks, first names replaced ethnic and religious labels, mistrust turned into curiosity; fear gave way to friendship. Seeds of Peace is doing the hard work of building peaceful coexistence—one relationship at a time.
Support in the region itself has been equally encouraging. King Hussein, who hosted a reunion of 300 Seeds of Peace graduates in Jordan in 1996, recently recalled, “I met with Seeds of Peace in Amman about a year ago and I shook hands with all of them. And what struck me was the fact that I could not distinguish an Israeli from a Palestinian from an Egyptian. One of the most encouraging elements of life in recent years is how much we can learn from these children. Give them the chance to remove the barriers that separate them—the walls through which they cannot see each other—give them the opportunity to come together, and they will.”
For Secretary of State Albright, the optimism and achievement of Seeds of Peace graduates in overcoming their peoples’ history of war and suffering are a powerful indication of what is possible in the Middle East. These youngsters’ testaments are a source of inspiration for her to trudge on despite the setbacks and disappointments.
Shortly after delivering her maiden Middle East speech, which contained a paragraph about Seeds of Peace, she met with a group of 165 graduates. One of them, a young Israeli woman named Noa, told Albright that she would never forget being comforted by a Palestinian teenager after the bombing in the Jerusalem’s Mahne Yehuda market that claimed 13 Israeli lives. “A spark was lit inside my heart, a spark that makes me see things in a different light,” Noa told the Secretary. Visibly moved, Albright rose and remarked, “Don’t be surprised if some of those statements show up in my speeches. I think ‘lighting a spark in your heart’ is terrific. And if I may steal that from you, I will.”
Albright then paid the highest tribute to the assembled youth, saying, “I [recently] gave my first speech on the Middle East. And as people … know, it was a pretty tough speech … But I insisted that it have a spark of hope, and that was when I discussed your program, Seeds of Peace—because I believe that what you are doing is so important to what we’re all trying to achieve in the Middle East.”
Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering—a former U.S. ambassador to both Jordan and Israel—has also been profoundly affected by these kids, as he told a gathering at the Wye Plantation Conference Center. “Secretary Albright recently hosted Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Qatari youth participating in the Seeds of Peace summer camp,” Pickering noted. “I don’t think the Secretary will be angry if I say that it was not her eloquent speech at that ceremony that made the greatest impression on me. It was the surprisingly frank admission of a Palestinian girl that, if she had been home at the time of the July 30 bombing in Jerusalem, she would not have cared about it. But, because she had spent time with Israeli young people and heard their perspective—as they had hers—she immediately cried when learning of the bombing. I can use many dry words to say that the parties to the peace process must take each other’s interests and concerns into account if this process is to succeed. But I think that girl’s message said it more eloquently than I ever could.”
Young people traditionally learn key lessons from their elders. But sometimes it is the elders—the negotiators and political leaders—who learn the most important lessons of all from young people.