Taking the peace process into our own hands

It’s one thing to say that we need peace, and to name, however passionately, our great capacity for it; it’s another thing entirely to say how we might go about bringing it.

This is the burden I have been carrying all week. I’ve written a few heartfelt pieces recently, calling for the reorientation of our perspectives and priorities, for redoubled efforts, time and energy. I’ve even said a few words about what our governments could be doing to improve the underlying circumstances. And that’s all well and good, and possibly even important. But while it helps me to feel a bit better, it doesn’t scratch all that itches inside of me.

Tachlis, nuts and bolts, how can we work to bring peace?

Let’s begin with the word itself, “peace”. Politicians and diplomats love to use it—pundits and priests, public opinion leaders, everyone, even terrorists use it. The thing is, I get the impression that most people have no idea what it actually means.

Peace will not come from drawing lines on a map. It will not come with a handshake between two men in suits, from signatures on a dotted line. It will not come from conquest. Quiet may come from that, maybe, but not quietude, not actual peace.

What is peace?

Shalom, the Hebrew word we normally translate as “peace,” does not connote a static state or fixed resolution. Shalom is dynamic; it’s about the harmonious functioning of disparate parts. True peace is about wholeness. When we look at the picture in it’s entirety, how do all of the parts fit together? How can they work in concert so that the entire organism—in this case all of the people and the land together—functions in a way that each element independently, and the whole collectively, thrives?

In other words, peace is not about separation; it’s about integration.

So much of the formal peace process to date has been about separation. It’s been about Areas A, B and C—about who lives, governs and carries guns where. It’s been about keeping populations apart, about carving lines in the sand. In a way, the peace process hasn’t really been about peace at all.

So, what can we do differently?

First, I want to say that entering the fray by naming a strategy for peace, however modest, is personally daunting, even a little terrifying. Given the scope of the challenges that face us—the levels of violence, hatred and injustice—any remotely realistic proposal can seem insignificant, laughable, totally inadequate. What I’m offering here is, of course, not the answer; it’s an idea, one of the myriad we’ll need to actually bring peace. Consider it the beginning of a conversation—open to input, development, insight, change.

The strategy I’d like to offer is based on the following observations and sensibilities:

–Partly as a result of the formal peace process, with its orientation towards the separation of populations (though certainly not only because of it), we are faced with two peoples who don’t see one another, don’t know and understand one another, and who are, by-and-large, simply afraid of one another. With most of the projects I’m involved in that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, roughly 98 percent of the time it’s peoples’ first time, ever, having a conversation with someone from the other side. This means they’ve spent their entire lives up to that point—decades—learning, reading, hearing and thinking about people from the other side, but never having, not once, sat down and talked with one of them; they’ve never heard their story, never shared their own.

–In order to understand how all of the pieces of the Palestinian and Israeli puzzles fit together, in order to build true peace, we actually need to understand one another better, to grasp both our inner and outer landscapes.

–We need a sense of movement, of growth and development, of progress towards the ultimate goals of peace, justice and freedom.

–We cannot wait for our leaders to do this for us; we must begin to take matters into our own hands. Since all of us have to learn to live together, all of us must be involved in bringing peace.

–We need to get creative, to begin thinking outside the box; we need to explore new ideas for peace, visions of what it might look like, how it could work.

–We need to develop a sense of mutual trust. There seem to be fewer and fewer people, on both sides, who believe there is room for hope. We need to begin building a widespread sense that peace with one another is actually possible.

And is it, ultimately, possible? I’d like, of course, to be able to say definitively that it is, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is the case; but there is also, of course, lots of evidence others could turn to to argue that it isn’t. We can’t really know for sure unless we give it our best efforts; and so far, we haven’t given it anything like our truly best efforts. Being un-provable either way, whether or not peace is possible is, in a way, irrelevant from our current vantage. As one of my favorite quotes has it, “Ask not if a thing is possible; ask only if it is necessary.” Peace is, to put it mildly, necessary; so, we must carry on as if it is possible, give it everything we have. In the end, at least we won’t be faulted for not trying every course of action, for not answering one of the greatest calls of our time.

–So, this proposal is also based on the sense that peace is essential; that we must do everything within our power to bring it; that we must act as if peace is not only possible, but within our reach.



The strategy I’m proposing is, on the whole, pretty straightforward. In the short-term, the People’s Peace Process would unfold in three principal phases:

Phase One: developing mutual understanding, and generating ideas.

The first phase would involve convening multiple groups of about 10 – 20 people—half Israeli, half Palestinian. Every effort would be made to ensure that these groups come to include a balance of representatives from every sector of society: men, women, students, business people, academics, laborers, activists, right-wing, left-wing, religious, secular, settlers, urban, rural, even government officials.

Each group would begin with sharing and listening, with getting to know and understand one another. At this point, the facilitation would aim to steer people away from their mental narratives—what they think the conflict is about and what they think should happen—and towards their feelings and personal experience—what they’ve seen and felt, what they’ve lived. At this stage, we’ll guide people to share their experience of the conflict itself, what impact it has had on them; we’ll get people to talk about their connection to the land, to name what they’ve been taught about the other, to share their fears and hopes, to share their deepest dreams for the land and its peoples.

Once some sense of mutual understanding has been developed, each group will shift towards envisioning possibilities. In a guided ideation and brainstorming session, we will encourage ideas that seem both practical and wildly idealistic. After identifying relationships between ideas, we will facilitate a discussion of feelings, observations and insights about different ideas and strategies. The intention at this point will not be foster agreement, but to map and understand the feelings, associations and evaluations among the different members of the group. This discussion will also be an opportunity to generate and explore further ideas.

Convening small groups of 10 -20 people roughly once a week, over the course of a year or so we could involve 500 – 1000 people in the process. Throughout each session, we will record and evaluate critical data on ideas, feelings and possibilities.

Phase One will also involve the establishment of a core leadership council, composed of a diverse assembly of leaders from each side. While each of the small groups will meet only once or twice, the core group would meet regularly throughout Phase One. The leadership council will reflect on and evaluate the information and ideas coming from the small groups and generate further ideas of their own. They will also plan and coordinate the subsequent phases of the process.

Phase Two: developing a plan.

Phase Two will involve the development of the People’s Peace Plan. Once a critical mass of people, from both sides, has engaged in the process, we will take the ideas, observations and evaluations generated in Phase One as a basis for discussions. This phase will involve the more sensitive task of refining our ideas and fitting them into an overall framework, which will likely involve a summit of all participants. It will involve negotiation, discussion and agreement. Only those who participated in Phase One—i.e. those who were involved in sharing their stories and hearing the stories of others, in coming to know the other side—will be invited to participate.

Phase Three: making it public, making it real.

Phase Three will be about taking the People’s Peace Plan into our streets and homes. It will be about sharing it with the public and using it as a basis for influence. This phase may even involve unofficial referenda. Though the final agreement between our two peoples may look different, the overall thrust of this phase will be to generate widespread consensus and support for People’s Peace Plan, and to use it as a basis for pushing our societies towards peaceful resolution.



Okay, so that’s the general idea. Again, totally open to input, guidance and hopefully even some support.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the People’s Peace Process replace any formal process; though it is my hope that it would inform, influence and, yes, possibly even inspire official efforts.

It also seems important for me to acknowledge here that, from where I sit, one of the biggest hurdles to success for the People’s Peace Process will be the current resistance to normalization with Israelis in Palestinian society. For those of us who engage in dialogue work, this phenomenon has put a stranglehold on efforts to work together. Key to overcoming this resistance will be to clearly demonstrate that the People’s Peace Process will not just be about getting together to talk and make nice, but that we will be dealing with the really tough issues—occupation, the wall, checkpoints, Jerusalem, settlements, security, refugees, etc—and that we intend to take the process much further, to actually push for resolution on these issues; if we can clearly demonstrate this, then God willing Palestinians will participate in numbers. There are also other strategies we can likely employ to reverse the orientation towards anti-normalization for this particular process; for these, we will need the help and guidance of Palestinian colleagues.

Again, this is just an idea, one of many we will need to finally bring peace between our two peoples. This is just the first step, putting the idea out there. Maybe something will come of it, perhaps it won’t. This post is an attempt, in part, to gauge interest and support. I obviously can’t do this on my own, but I’d be happy to coordinate moving things forward. Maybe you have some expertise or experience that can help guide the process; perhaps you can help recruit participants; maybe you’re a really effective translator. I’ve been a project coordinator and facilitator for about 20 years, but I am not, for example, the person to design and manage the website, or to answer all the emails and phone calls. For the record, I already own the web address, which may help. So, if you’d like to help in any way, if you have any feedback or insight, or possibly even the financial means to help support the time, energy, infrastructure and material it will take to make this a reality, please send emails to I’ll answer them, for now.

To bring peace to Israel and Palestine seems, from where we stand today, daunting. Our task in the here and now is not really to know how, but to gather the ideas, insights and momentum necessary to make peace a reality. Since true peace is about wholeness, about multiple parts working together, our means must be consonant with that end; we must involve all the parts of this conflict—all of the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. We must learn to work together, to dream together—first in small groups, and then as a whole. Together we must look out to the furthest horizon of our potential and take the first small step, as one, towards it.

About the Author
Yonatan Shefa facilitates interactive dialogue sessions between Israelis and Palestinians, between religious Jews, Christians and Muslims. He also studies at an orthodox beit midrash in Jerusalem.