The last time anyone on this bus visited Jerusalem, the flags hanging outside and inside the New Orient House were illegal.
Now, with mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization achieved, the organization’s red, white, green and black flag flies freely.
A group of Jewish visitors from America quickly posed, using the flag as the perfect photo backdrop, after hearing an official PLO spokesman explain and defend the organization’s policies.
The meeting with Maen Areikat, head of the Palestinian Information Office in eastern Jerusalem, was followed by one with residents of Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc in the West Bank.
Similar meetings with Palestinians and settlers were part of the itinerary for each of the 21 buses carrying across the country the 700 American Jews participating in the President’s Mission of the United Jewish Appeal.
Meetings with representatives on both sides of political issues are not new for UJA missions.
But the meeting at the New Orient House was the first such meeting with Palestinian representatives in their official headquarters, the building in eastern Jerusalem that represents the Palestinian political presence in the city.
“The peace process has set a wonderful tone where people feel they want to touch it and feel it,” said Roberta Holland, chair of the mission, pointing to the substantially larger number of participants than in recent such missions.
The tone was clear in the enthusiasm that greeted Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ appraisal of the peace process at the beginning of the mission.
And it was evident in the disappointment of some Americans when Areikat offered less tangible evidence of new relations between the Arabs and Jews than they would have liked.
“As usual, the Palestinians are saying the Israelis should be doing more,” Bob Usen of Boston said after the meeting.
“I don’t know what they (the Palestinians) are really doing to make this process go faster,” he said.
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Areikat had said the Palestinians were planning an economy that would be “a bit protectionist,” and played down the notion of joint Israeli-Palestinian economic activity in the near future.
“The economic situation will be directly tied to the political situation,” he told the Americans. “Don’t expect full economic relations before the political situation is settled.”
He also dismissed an appeal by the UJA executive vice president, Rabbi Brian Lurie, for an end to the Arab economic boycott of Israel and of the countries that do business with it.
“It’s not yet easy to say, let’s normalize everything,” said Areikat. “You can’t come now when I’m still under Israeli military occupation, and Syrian territory is still under Israeli military occupation, and Lebanon is still under Israeli military occupation, and Lebanon is still under military occupation, and ask me to give up one of my strongest weapons.”
But if the PLO spokesman did not live up to euphoric visions of immediate peace, the settlers also failed to convince most participants of their side.
Some of the settlers generated sympathy, if not political agreement.
“I learned something about the settlers,” Holland said.
“It gave me a greater insight, and a great deal more compassion,” she said. “I understand what they built, with a lot of passion and blood, that they’re concerned about losing their homes and their security.
“I’m sorry they’re put in the dilemma they’re in, but hopefully it was resolved to their satisfaction, and they will be able to keep their homes.”
But other mission participants complained of being harangued.
“Why don’t you give your government a chance?” asked one visitor to Efrat, after a resident, Jack Kern, accused Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of lying to the public and betraying the country.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the mission, Rabin was loudly applauded after saying that Israel was taking “calculated risks” for peace.