Those of us who work for and seek a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lost a dear friend and colleague on Friday. Ron Pundak, 59, passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer.
Ron was an unusual and special person. A committed Zionist and Israeli patriot, he believed each and every human being, without exception, deserved respect and dignity. Those beliefs underscored his passion for and commitment to creating a better world for all and, more particularly, the Israelis and Palestinians who inhabited his neighborhood. An historian and journalist by profession, he graduated from the University of London with a PhD in Middle Eastern Political History. He then worked tirelessly to bring about reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. He did so as a realist, not as a romantic.
Ron was a co-founder of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an NGO that established relationships with Palestinian leaders at a time when the two sides rarely spoke. He was convinced that economic development and cooperation provided one of the foundations for creating conditions for peace. It was that work that led him to establish, with the urging of then Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and ultimately the support of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a secret channel of communications with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Norway.
Those discussions ultimately led to the signing of the Oslo Accords. He was forever committed to that effort, believing, to the end, that the lack of success of that agreement was due to a failure of execution and not the substance. For him, the greatest achievements of those accords were, as he stated, the mutual recognition by “… two nationalist movements, the Zionist movement in the form of the State of Israel and the Palestinian national movement in the form of the PLO.”
In 2001, Ron became the Director General of the Peres Center for Peace where he remained until 2011. He was also the co-chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. His contributions to the quest for peace were legendary and the appreciation for his advocacy in that regard was well-recognized by Israelis, Palestinians and many others from all over the world. The tributes that have poured in since his death are a testament to the respect he engendered from those in the political arena and elsewhere.
Yet, it was his humanity and decency that set him apart. He never forgot why he engaged in the work he did nor did he forget the goals to which he aspired. He felt a resolution of the conflict was eminently achievable and that such a resolution was in the best interests of both Israel and its neighbor. Those who knew him were consistently impressed by the energetic nature of his advocacy and the passion with which he spoke about the need for peace. Indeed, he dedicated his life to that effort, inspired by the desire to see two peoples living side by side in peace and prosperity. For him, the Zionist enterprise demanded no less.
For those of us fortunate to call him our friend, we will forever remember his irrepressible optimism as well as his warmth and loyalty, not only to the ideals we shared but to the values and morals that were emblematic of his work and which formed the basis of his character. He was a mentor and role model to many. His friendship carried with it the same commitments as his passion for peace. Long and thoughtful conversations, always calm and respectful in nature, were among the highlights of that friendship.
Our hearts go out to Ron’s wife Tula and his children, May and Aram. So, too, to his sister and to his parents who have now suffered their second loss of a child, the first being their son Uri who died in the Yom Kippur war. Ron never forgot Uri and spoke of him often.
The peace camp has lost one of its greatest advocates and inspirations, a man who was relentless in his optimism and his belief that the world could and should be a better place for all its inhabitants. Israel has lost one of its patriots. The countless Israelis and Palestinians who crossed his path and benefited from his work and wisdom know he will be irreplaceable. Yet his spirit will live on in many forms and the work he started will, we hope, be successfully concluded one day in the not too distant future.
Geoffrey H. Lewis is a Board Member of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). Steven C. Koppel is a founder of American Friends of the Peres Center for Peace.