Actually Dr. Saeb Erekat, Head of the Palestinian Negotiating Team didn’t use those famous words of my namesake, Rabbi Hillel, but rather Barbra Streisand at her extraordinary concert in Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv last Saturday night.

However, that was the essence of the message that Dr. Erekat sent to Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, and to the Israeli public and politicians, earlier in the week.

Dr. Erekat was speaking in Notre Dame, opposite the walls of the Old City, the Pope’s home away from home when he is in the Holy Land, at an event organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) to launch its new issue devoted to The Younger Generation on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, with the participation of MK Hilik Bar, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Secretary General of the Labor Party and Chair Knesset Lobby to Promote the Two-State Solution,  Yael Patir, Israeli J-Street Representative and Riman Barakat, Palestinian Co-CEO of IPCRI.  Approximately 150 people attended the open forum and asked questions following the presentations.

The Palestinians are ready for real negotiations

“The Palestinian leadership is ready to negotiate a resolution of the conflict based on the 1967 borders,” said Erekat, though “continued settlements activities in Jerusalem and the West Bank leave little room for real negotiations.” He added that he hopes that Kerry will succeed to restart the negotiations, but the Palestinians want to negotiate the substance of the process and not marginal side issues. He wondered why Israel wants the Palestinians to recognize its identity differently than it is recognized by the UN, and in its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, adding that “every state has the right to define itself as it wishes.” Looking towards the future, he said that “anyone who knows how to count knows that there will be a Palestinian majority in the land within 20 years.”  At which point Israel will have to choose between being an apartheid regime or a democratic state alongside the state of Palestine.

“The younger generation is impatient with us”

Looking towards the future, he said that “everything I am doing is for the sake of my grandchildren, who are graduates of Seeds of Peace programs.”  And he recalled that one time when there was a crisis in his home town of Jericho, a flood, none of his Israeli governmental interlocutors called to ask how his family was, “but 20 young Israelis, who had been with his daughter in a Seeds camp, called to ask.  He concluded by noting that the younger generation has strong stereotyped images about each other because of the wall between Israel & Palestine and the lack of contact between them.  “The current leadership, led by President Abbas, believes in non-violence as the key to the struggle to end the occupation. However the younger generation is impatient with us, and we do not know what will happen if there is no breakthrough.”

(l to r) Dr. Saeb Erekat and MK Hilik Bar

“Palestinians should enter negotiations without preconditions now”

“I urge the Palestinians to utilize the Kerry initiative to enter into a negotiating process now, without any preconditions,” said MK Bar. He noted that in the last elections, the Israeli public voted mainly on social and economic issues not security issues. Yet there was an increase in the number of Knesset members, many of them young like himself, who are committed to the Israel-Palestine peace process. Bar declared that there are “70 MKs who would support a two-state solution,” and added that the Arab Peace Initiative is also an important foundation for progress. He emphasized that his party will keep pushing the Netanyahu government to engage in a real peace process or “we will push it out of office and replace it with a different one”.

“When Rabin was assassinated, we lost our grandfather”

“When Oslo was signed, I was 13 years old, and we danced in the streets like the images from 1948 when the state was established” said Patir.  Yet when Rabin was assassinated two years later “it felt like we had lost our grandfather who was watching over us.”  She emphasized that the continuation of the occupation, the need to serve in the army in the occupied territories, an experience she with all her peers, had caused her generation to do terrible things.  Patir believes that there is no inherent contradiction between Israel being a Jewish and a democratic state, “but the key problem can be stated in three words: occupation, occupation, occupation.”

Yes to a joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle to end the occupation

“To conquer the giant and mini-despots, we ought to engage in trying to create a true sense of community that is strengthened by human rights values and respects freedoms of all different kinds” wrote Barakat in her article in the Journal.  “Freedom from the Israeli occupation is of course an important prerequisite, but once the external enemy disappears, we will be left with ourselves.”   Like the other speakers, she highlighted the importance of active engagement by the younger generation. Barakat added that she is against “normalization” with the occupation, but does not think that joint political activities and meetings between Israelis and Palestinians against the occupation is normalization, and she is in favor of a joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle to end the occupation.  Barakat noted that she is a member of the new Palestinian committee organized to reach out to the Israeli public.

(l to r) Yael Patir, Dr. Saeb Erekat, MK Hilik Bar and Riman Barakat

It is not every day that Israelis, Palestinians and internationals have a chance to come together to discuss their shared challenges and existential dilemmas.   In my view, as an organizer and facilitator of the Notre Dame encounter, this type of engagement is a key to overcoming and resolving the conflict.   Such meetings are one of the ways to translate into reality the statement by President Obama to Israeli students in March that “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”