BY ANDREW FRIEDMAN | Maybe if presidents and prime ministers shared hotel rooms, shot pool down in the lobby in between negotiating sessions, sneaked into one another’s rooms at night for some rowdy horseplay or sat in the hallways way past bedtime laughing about funny stories from camp last summer—maybe if they really cared about one another—there would be peace in the Middle East.
The 75 Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and American teenagers who convened recently in Villars, Switzerland, to negotiate the final status issues of the Middle East peace process had something going for them that their leaders, who met in London at the same time, didn’t. We had friendship.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton made her now-famous remarks supporting the creation of a Palestinian state, she was talking to us. But as momentous as her statement was, it was not the most significant event to transpire during the course of the Seeds of Peace-Novartis Middle East Youth Summit. The very fact that we could spend eight days together discussing, arguing, talking, cajoling and ultimately defining for ourselves the outlines of what permanent normalcy (“real” peace) might be, was far more revolutionary in its implications than the first lady’s remarks.
We had gathered in Switzerland to attempt to negotiate issues including refugees, Jerusalem and sovereignty—issues still too difficult for our elders to discuss. Each delegate was a graduate of Seeds of Peace, a foundation that brings young Arabs and Israelis and Americans together at a camp in Maine every summer. This first ever youth summit aimed at drafting a general agreement on the final status issues, tested to the maximum the strength of our friendships and the durability of our trust. It was a test of our commitment to one another and to peace. At camp, we had agreed to disagree; here, we needed to compromise and debate until we reached agreement. The summit gave us a rare opportunity to actually influence our leaders, to be a part of history-in-the-making. Yasser Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Clintons, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Jordan’s King Hussein have agreed to read our agreement. The pride and responsibility that came with this realization set the tone for the entire week of negotiations.
But the summit was not a sugar-coated performance. Some adults worried we’d leave feeling as disillusioned and disappointed with one another as the real negotiators do. None of us, though, was expecting Utopia. Everybody came prepared to deal with real issues and real emotions. If making personal peace was hard, making a peace treaty would be even harder.
In my committee’s discussions about the refugees, we spent the week haggling over proposals, tweaking, arguing some more, until we could finally reach a compromise. One of the last days of the negotiations, I was having a private discussion with the Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians. We were trying to persuade a Palestinian girl to compromise. An Egyptian girl movingly pleaded with her to understand that reality would never be able to live up to her dreams. That is a tragedy, but one we must all accept. The Palestinian girl sat there silently for a little while, then she started crying. Her tears represented a heart-wrenching letting go of her impossible dream in exchange for a less-desirable reality.
When we finally reached an agreement, we all cheered and hugged. I was excited and fearful for my summit peers about what we had accomplished: This truly is their future on the line. They all have a vested interest in the success of the peace process, because if it fails, it will be they who will again be forced into the cycles of hatred and violence. That’s what everybody is afraid of and that’s why we were all there.
So whether the next summit of the “real” leaders is next week or next year, I hope they will look to our example. My advice to President Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu is simple: Next time you meet, why don’t the three of you share a room? You might learn something about one another you didn’t know. You might discover that your assumptions about one another have been wrong all along. You might even make a friend. And you might even decide that your friendship is worth a little compromise.