WASHINGTON (Jul. 26)
Samer Sinijlawi and Uri Aloni have come a long way.
Less than 10 years ago, at the height of the intifada — the Palestinian uprising against Israel — Sinijlawi was throwing stones and organizing Palestinian demonstrations. Aloni, serving in the Israel Defense Force, was firing rubber bullets and chasing protesters through the streets.
Now they are engaged in a different sort of struggle, this one in the pursuit of mutual understanding.
Together with a handful of other Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders, Sinijlawi and Aloni have begun a dialogue — an unlikely meeting of one-time protesters and soldiers, prisoners and jailers, striving to break loose from the bonds of the past.
The idea originated with the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, who sought out American help in facilitating the dialogue last year through the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
While some Israeli and Palestinian youth have met before, this effort marks the first sustained dialogue between youth leaders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Fatah.
And unlike other programs that bring Israeli and Arab teen-agers together, the dozen or so participants — ranging from their mid-20s to their mid-30s – - stand on the brink of assuming positions of political leadership on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Some are considering running for the Israeli Knesset or Palestinian legislative council.
Calling themselves “the enemies of yesterday and the leaders of tomorrow,” eight Likud and Fatah youth leaders traveled this month to the United States together on a trip sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders and the United States Information Agency.
A two-week swing through Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston and New York included meetings with members of Congress, administration officials, mayors and other local officials, as well as American Arab and Jewish leaders. The participants got a taste of American democracy, while bringing an important message of hope to policymakers.
“Sometimes political change needs a generation change,” says Sinijlawi, 26, the international chairman of the youth wing of Fatah. “That’s why young leaders, both from Israel and Palestine, are able to communicate better than the old generation. We look more toward the future, we are not prisoners of the past.”
Sinijlawi, who, like several of the Palestinian participants, spent four years in an Israeli prison for organizing demonstrations during the intifada, punctuated that fact by addressing an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Chicago. He wore a yarmulka in what he felt was a sign of respect to the congregation.
The dialogue started last November in Cyprus with eight representatives on each side. At first the discussions were emotionally charged, touching on some of the most divisive issues separating the two peoples.
But the participants emerged from the Mediterranean island having made important connections on a human level — mutual respect, even friendships. They now talk frequently on the phone and some have met one another’s families.
Despite the common ground they have discovered, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have illusions about the path they have embarked on.
“I know we’re going to disagree,” says Liat Ravner, 25, the chair of Likud’s Young Generation Forum. “We’re going to have the same problems with Jerusalem, for example, but we’re going to sit at the table like friends, not like people who didn’t know each other before, not like enemies.”
What is remarkable about the dialogue is that the two sides, holding such diametrically opposed views, have been able to narrow the gap between them without moving away from their principles.
“We didn’t change our ideology,” says Aloni, 36, who less than five years ago was organizing demonstrations against the Oslo accords. “We didn’t change our minds and our point of view. We just tried to learn more about each other.”
Aloni, the former head of the youth wing of Likud and a former adviser to Netanyahu, has a mantra he frequently invokes: “If I know you, I can’t hate you.”
“There’s not a single person here who’s participating who feels they’re betraying their beliefs or their party’s beliefs by participating,” says Jay Footlik, President Clinton’s former liaison to the Jewish community, who has been helping to facilitate the dialogue on behalf of the American Council of Young Political Leaders.
Nevertheless, both the Israelis and Palestinians have had to contend with considerable opposition at home. Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Arafat and Danny Naveh, Netanyahu’s Cabinet secretary, have expressed support for what the youth leaders are doing, that feeling is not widely shared in their communities.
Ravner says some of her friends have told her that she’s “stupid” and have called her a “crazy Arab” or “Fatah youth.”
The new head of Likud youth has gone further, threatening in a letter to cut off ties with the U.S. Embassy in Israel if it did not call off the recent trip to the United States.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have been denounced as collaborators by some in their community, while Palestinian extremists have issued leaflets threatening the participants.
“We’re not doing this dialogue at ease,” Sinijlawi says. “We’re taking very high political and individual risks.”
Amid continuing criticism and trying political conditions, the group is seeking to widen its circle in coming months and hold additional dialogues alternating between Palestinian and Israeli cities. A follow-up trip to Turkey is in the works for the fall.
“Both of us have a responsibility and have homework,” says Rawan Abou Yosef, 27, who works for a minister in Arafat’s government. “They should go back to their community and tell them about us, and we should go back to our community and tell them about them.
“We’re not devils, we’re not enemies anymore. We’re just human beings, and any human being can disagree with anyone.”
Just how far they have come was evident toward the end of a long day of meetings in Washington, when the delegation was waiting in a conference room in the U.S. Capitol for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) to arrive.
One of the Israelis, as a joke, decided to stand in for the congressman and commence the meeting. Sinijlawi, impersonating one of his Israeli counterparts to the amusement of everyone in the room, put a yarmulka on his head and declared in Hebrew: “We don’t want to implement the agreement. Mr. Netanyahu is great.”
The banter went on and eventually quieted down, at which point one of the Israelis suggested a song: “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” — “Jerusalem of Gold.”
“Isn’t it a song that can work for both of us?” Ravner asked Sinijlawi. As the Israelis sang a few verses, Sinijlawi concentrated on the lyrics and after a moment he turned to Ravner and said, “You know what, it’s a good song.”