Richard Jones
December 21, 2007 - 3:40pm

The American poet and public figure Archibald MacLeish once wrote that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." These words, subsequently incorporated into the preamble of UNESCO's 1945 constitution, remain as relevant today as they were when they were penned during the waning days of World War II.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and their respective teams, begin negotiations toward the establishment of a Palestinian state and the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is time to think seriously about how to construct "defenses of peace" in the minds of Israelis and Palestinians. Tel Aviv University's most recent Peace Index shows that while a majority of Israelis believe that the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority truly want peace, only a minority feel that a peace agreement would be durable. Polls show that Palestinians are equally skeptical. Without support from civil society on both sides, it will be difficult for their leaders to achieve President Bush's vision of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, living side by side in peace and security.

Even as progress is being made along the political track, it is clear that more needs to be done to expand and strengthen support from civil society for an ultimate resolution of the conflict. I believe that peace education must be a key element of this effort, before, during and even long after an agreement is reached.

Peace education will encompass many activities. At home and in sporting activities it can mean practicing taking turns, sharing and fair play. In the classroom it can mean teaching civics, studying the history and beliefs of other cultures and learning foreign languages. Civic groups and religious leaders can encourage their communities to practice techniques for peaceful conflict resolution, to tolerate other points of view and to value diversity.

The fundamental goal of all such activities should be to teach people, from childhood, how to get along with others in order to overcome the innate fear of those different from themselves. With peace education, it will be harder to demonize and dehumanize groups we don't know and harder for them to do the same to us. With peace education, pessimism about future peace will no longer have the upper hand. Of course, it would be nice if peace education were offered in every educational system in both societies, but I don't think we can afford to wait that long in this conflict. For now, an effort that is mutual and involves both Palestinians and Israelis would be a huge step forward.

Fortunately, there are many elements of Israeli civil society that recognize the importance of peace education, and are working to create the conditions that will make it possible to build a durable peace. Operating in a wide range of fields, they are developing educational curricula and methods for conflict resolution, and are helping to strengthen the principles of democracy in Israel's evolving society. One Israeli organization is conducting what could best be described as a peace game, in which Arab and Jewish students take part in mock peace negotiations. Other organizations are developing bridges between Israel's Arab and Jewish communities and between Israelis and Palestinians. In other words, many Israelis and Palestinians are already engaged in the hard work of constructing the defenses of peace.

For our part, the U.S. Embassy in Israel has been partnering with many Israeli grassroots organizations and schools to conduct peace education programs. We work closely with groups and institutions that teach respect for democratic values and diversity, provide students with solid citizenship skills, tackle conflict resolution, develop language skills and foster knowledge of and respect for others.

Currently, the U.S. government is working with a well-known U.S. management training company to offer a course in leadership development skills for young professional Israelis and Palestinians. We have also provided support to the Hand in Hand Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools to help open a new school in Be'er Sheva. This comes on top of a previous grant to Hand in Hand to prepare a bilingual curriculum for use in their schools and other institutions interested in their model.

These are just a few examples of our long-term commitment to peace education. More people and institutions need to be involved. Such efforts need to reach all levels of Israeli society. The goal is not simply to understand and respect each other, although that would certainly be significant. We must do everything possible to learn and appreciate each other's traditions and history and to integrate this knowledge into our understanding of a shared humanity. Our ultimate goal, of course, is not merely to "construct the defenses of peace," but to build a durable peace. However, only by strengthening the perception that peace is, in fact, possible will we succeed. It is time to get started!

Richard Jones is the U.S. ambassador to Israel.


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