Dreaming of Peace in the Middle East

I remember last year sitting in a room at Waterman, listening to a lady speak about why I should be taking a free trip to Israel- no hotel, airfare, or meals, just spending money. I pictured myself floating in the Dead Sea while the salt was burning my hangnails. I pictured myself at the Western Wall, touring Jerusalem, experiencing my heritage first hand. I would go out and enjoy the nightlife in Tel Aviv. It sounded like the picture perfect vacation; culture, heritage, and excitement. A free trip into my history as a Jew. I walked out, and threw the literature in the garbage. There was a reason that room felt like an empty abyss. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to Israel – a free vacation, and no one showed up.

Just a little while after that meeting, a suicide bomber blew up another bus in Tel Aviv. It was filled with university students. That was all I needed to hear. I kept thinking to myself, “I’ll wait it out and eventually there will be peace, or if not peace at least relative stability.” When I tour the sites of my people’s past, I would like to do it without fearing for my own life, without having to constantly peer over my shoulder. In the last few weeks, it seems that stability and peace might come sooner than anyone had expected. The irony is that peace talks only began because of death – Yasar Arafat, leader of Palestine, died less than a couple of months ago.

Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon said this past Tuesday that his government will be coordinating the Israeli pull of the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian leadership. It’s seems as if Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the new leader of Palestine, have a cordial relationship and are striving towards peace. Israel has also released Palestinian hostages and halted destruction of Palestinian militants’ homes. While terrorist attacks still happen, the frequency is decreasing rapidly, especially with the declaration of a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview this weekend that the war with the Israelis is effectively over and that the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is speaking “a different language to the Palestinians.” There is a general aura that both of these men are dedicated to peace, as their negotiations have not been deterred by the extreme groups on both sides. The Israeli Likud rightists have threatened Sharon’s life as well as his assistants, and have also talked of desecrating his wife’s grave site. Sharon has bravely stood strong and refused to blink an eye. Meanwhile, Abbas is using tough talk with Hamas, an infamous ‘terrorist’ group in the eyes of the Israeli citizens. “Abbas spoke with pride about persuading the radical groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to respect the mutual declaration of a truce.”

Hamas has already agreed to have a candidate run in the legislative election in July, and Abbas is welcoming their transformation into a political organization. Can things still go wrong? Absolutely. Sharon or Abbas could get assinated tomorrow and gunfire would start immediately. But after years of bloodshed, I prefer the overwhelming feeling of optimism. I understand that it won’t be easy to remove 8,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza, and that it is difficult to get people on both sides to halt attacks. Last week’s paper showed Sharon and Abbas shaking hands over a table, and in my mind that was a welcomed image. A truce and, for now, a feeling of peace. I think of possibly attending that meeting again next year and visiting Israel. Perhaps my free trip still awaits. For the first time in my young life, I can imagine myself smiling on a bus in Tel Aviv.