Whew, what a day! Things started out at about 8 a.m. and it is now 1 a.m., although, in fairness, the last couple of hours were elective, but interesting.
The day was divided into several parts: meetings with youth, interviews, civil society, ambassadors and business leaders. The Elders (minus me and Richard, sadly) also met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in an historic meeting.
The delegation began the morning with a meeting with seven youth leaders at the Beit Yehudit cultural center in Jerusalem. We probably could have spent an hour with each of the seven, but, unfortunately, only had an hour to spend in total. Our delegation leader, President Cardoso, commenced the visit by making some remarks and answering questions from the press. Even though English is President Cardoso’s fourth language, he deftly responded to questions about The Elders’ visit, the position on settlement freezes, and opinions of Israel and its policies.
The youth leaders ranged in age from 16 to 27 and the most animated was the youngest of the lot, a young lady named Maayan. Despite dealing with cerebral palsy, Maayan had turned her disability on its head and dedicated her time to striving for rights for the disabled in Israel. Clearly endowed with a dry wit, Maayan described her frustrations with members of the Israeli establishment, who in some cases “disappeared” on their election promises to her once the election was over. She also commented that “people who don’t respect those who are different than them in their society will also not respect other nations or other peoples.” Archbishop Tutu agreed and said that “the world would be boring if we were all the same” and regaled us with his story of spending time with Stephen Hawking at the White House the week before when both received their Presidential Medals of Freedom. Also attending were a young settler, a former army officer/commander, a youth organizer and two Palestinians living in Israel. One could not help but feel that these bright, engaged young people were the ones who would provide the backbone of any future agreement to bring peace to the region.
Richard and I headed over to do some business interviews while The Elders met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which holds 11 seats in the Knesset and is part of the ruling coalition of Netanyahu. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that one!
Apparently, the Rabbi was a bit anxious to meet with our illustrious group as he doesn’t often take meetings of this type. And being 89 years old, this surely was not an easy occasion for him. But I am told that the meeting went swimmingly, with the Rabbi warmly greeting his guests and even calling the group “messengers of God.”
Our next meeting was with a group of 27 Israeli NGOs at the King David Hotel. The various NGOs reinforced a few key points:
- the status quo in Israel is relatively good for most Israelis, but it isn’t sustainable long term.
- progress on peace has been slow in coming, and this has been dispiriting.
- it will take a third-party to force Israel and Palestine out of their current deadlock and move to a better, more viable equilibrium.
- the U.S. peace plan elicits fear and uncertainty in Israel.
- the mainstream individual in Israel does not think deeply about these issues.
After the lunch meeting, the Elders delegation adjourned into a private room with five individuals/groups who had been affected by violence in the region.
- ZAKA, represented by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, volunteers, among other things, to collect the remains of victims of terrorism.
- Parents Circle, represented by Robi Damelin, consists of several hundred Israeli and Palestinian families that have lost immediate family members to violence. Roni gave an impressive presentation and a small gift, a book of human rights cartoons.
- Combatants for Peace, represented by Roni Segoli, a former soldier, policeman and secret agent, who uses non-violence as a lever for change.
- Former combat soldier Raanan Paz.: Once out of army, he escaped to Scotland, reflecting a common practice of ex-soldiers leaving Israel after their army duty is complete. He has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s now acting in a play in Tel Aviv about the impact of the conflict on young Israelis.
- NATAL, represented by Dr Rony Berger. Dr Rony is a clinical psychologist and quite impressive with his experience and work with those going through post-traumatic stress disorder.
We also met with a native of Sderot who had been hit three times by kassam missiles launched from Gaza…a very unlucky circumstance.
After meeting with folks who had lost loved ones to war, our next destination, Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, was appropriate. The Elders laid a wreath and rekindled the eternal flame.
Finally, we met with a number of Israeli business leaders over dinner.
The evening concluded with drinks with the Israeli business crowd. One young woman had flown from New York to Israel for the meeting, then was flying to Brazil that night for a few hours, then back to Israel.