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My Meeting with the President of Palestine

Thursday 5 June 2014

May 28, 2014: I was very excited when the forum of peace organizations received an invitation to join in a meeting with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), President of Palestine. I immediately knew that I must participate in this historic event. If Abu Mazen extended an invitation to representatives of peace organizations, there was no question that it was important and meaningful for me to be there, as a member of Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam, as a member of the board of the Sulha Peace Project, and also for myself as a strong believer in the possibility to live together in a safe space.

Nava (director of the School for Peace) gave me books and materials. I added pamphlets on the Pluralistic Spiritual Community Center, and the Primary School to present to him, knowing that this was an opportunity to share Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salam’s partnership in peace, and our strong vision that we can live together as equals.

On a sunny morning on the 28th of May, 250 supporters of peace and representatives of various peace organizations left Israel in five buses for Ramallah and the head offices of the Palestinian government. The buses were filled with many people I know: the weathered faces of long time peace activists and many exciting new faces of young people who also believe that peace is possible and worth working for.

Our buses were escorted from the border crossing at Ramallah by police and military personnel to the Mukataa, the governmental offices and headquarters for the Palestinian Government. We were told to leave behind in the buses all cameras and personal belongings. “What? Leave behind my control over my belongings? My identity? To let go and trust?”

I let go, and took with me trust - and the plastic bag of books. I was surprised at how easy it was to leave everything behind and prepare for the meeting.

The morning agenda was full and there was a lot of hustle and bustle, of preparation and excitement. There were representatives from various departments of the Palestinian Authority, many faces: some serious, some busy, some questioning, some curious, hospitable, a few familiar faces: mostly the faces of men - maybe one Palestinian woman’s face.

The security men checked my bag. “What’s this?” They asked in Arabic. “Gifts” I Replied. “Gifts for whom?” “For the Rais.” (“The President”) They peeked in the bag and let me through.

On each chair there was an information packet in Hebrew explaining the Palestinian position on current issues and the vision statement of the Palestinian Committee for Israeli Relations.

The meeting was fascinating: Abu Mazen discussed his negotiations with the Israeli government. He talked about points of agreement, points of disagreement, frustrations, the settlements, government opposition and suspicions. He spoke about the new agreement between Fatah (the PLO) and the Hamas, and the plan to establish a unity government that is not affiliated with either Hamas or Fatah.

At one point he said: “For 66 years I’ve lived outside my home. We tried everything to return and have paid a heavy price. We are still paying that price, and you too pay a price. I think it is time to find other ways for our children and grandchildren to live in peace and security”.

His words opened a warm and frank dialogue with the participants. Members of the audience queried Palestinian fears of “normalization”, which prevents many exchanges between the two sides such as grassroots dialogue, cooperative projects between peace organizations, and cooperation between Palestinian artists and intellectuals and Israeli colleges.

Mussie Raz spoke in the name of the Bereaved Families Forum. Lior Finkel read a letter from the daughter of the late Ron Pundak, who had played an important role in initiating the “Oslo Peace Process”.

Abu Mazen paid tribute to Ron Pundak and presented his family with an award, honoring him for his work in bringing the Palestinian and Israeli people together. It was a very warm and touching ceremony.

The overall tone of the meeting was extremely positive and encouraging. Abu Mazen said he would encourage Palestinians from different fields to promote joint activities with peace organizations and promised that meetings of this kind would continue.

The meeting ended without me getting the opportunity to ask any of the many questions that had been turning in my mind. Abu Mazen descended from the podium, surrounded by his security detail. Many persons tried to approach, to squeeze in a word or shake his hand.

What of my bag of materials, which is filled with so many words, tools for dialogue, pieces of life, and the stories of struggles and successes? I had promised Nava, but there was no way to get near him.” If I can’t give it to him I’ll at least give it to one of his staff,” I thought. I pushed my way towards the door he was heading towards. Men looked at me in astonishment, “What are you doing here? What do you want?” “I just want to give him a gift. Maybe one of you is willing to take it and give it to him?” No one answered and I once again considered giving up. Sorry, Nava, I’m really not good at this stuff!

Suddenly a hand came out from nowhere, and a general with shiny stars on his epaulets pulled me in. “Now! Now!”, he called, and almost planted me in the arms of the President. Standing in front of Abu Mazen I said, “Ahalan, ana jit min Wahat al Salam” - “I come from Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam - a village where Jews and Arabs live together in peace”. Our conversation was in Arabic. I described in a few sentences our 40 years of communal existence and added that I had brought him a gift. “A gift, what kind of gift?” he asked. “Books” I replied. “Books?. Books are good!”. Someone took them out of the bag so he could see. Then he pulled me close to him and in all the commotion turned to the photographers to have us photographed together, just as I was telling him that we live – Arabs and Jews – together. And he whispers back, “So you live with “them?” - excellent! Just don’t give up”. How did he know that sometimes I give up?

It all happened so very quickly. I managed to exchange a few words with him and have a photograph taken. When I returned to the bus it suddenly occurred to me that maybe - maybe - it was not clear who he meant by “them”. Who are “we” and who are “they”? Maybe he thought that we were them and they were us..?

Many words had been exchanged during this day. Nava, I wonder whether these were empty words (kalam fadi) . . or words that will create a new future?

Dafna Karta-Schwartz
Director of the Pluralistic
Spiritual Community Center
Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam

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