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Israeli, Palestinian students negotiate the ‘ultimate deal’

Boarding school near Tel Aviv goes from theory to practice with high-speed simulated peace talks

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Students from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok, on March 2, 2017, participate in mock peace negotiations.  (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Students from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok, on March 2, 2017, participate in mock peace negotiations. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

While peace talks between the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships have been on ice since 2014, last week Israeli, Palestinian and international high school classmates took a shot at negotiating what US President Donald Trump has called the “ultimate deal.”

For the past three months, the incredibly diverse pupils from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Hakfar Hayarok, located north of Tel Aviv, have studied the contours of the conflict and peace mediation in a special course at Tel Aviv University.

On Wednesday, the students, 50 in all, were split into three groupings, each consisting of a Palestinian and an Israeli delegation, and given 24 hours to hammer out a deal.

Twenty percent of EMIS students are Arab and Jewish Israelis, another 20% are Palestinians and other Arabs from the Middle East — including one from Yemen — and the other 60% consists of members of over 40 nationalities around the globe.

The students were challenged by some of the classic hurdles to a peace deal — such as how to divide Jerusalem, or how to reconcile the Palestinian demand that all descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War be allowed to return, with the Israeli desire to remain a Jewish and democratic state.

In the end, however, all of the delegations signed on the bottom line for a peace deal, and all backed a two-state solution.

The entire three-month program was organized by the Charney Resolution Center, located on the campus of the EMIS school.

Sapir Hendleman, who helped facilitate the program and has helped organize dozens of simulated negotiations in Israel and abroad, said, “They intuitively all spoke about two states. It’s not usually that way.”

Marwa Toame, 16, from Ramallah, a student at the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations at her school. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Marwa Toame, 16, from Ramallah, a student at the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations at her school. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

Asked about the fact that some pundits consider the two-state solution dead, Marwa Toame, 16, from Ramallah, said, “If it is dead, then we will make it alive again.”

Toame, whose father is a deputy minister in the Palestinian Authority, said that on a trip to the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to get a sense of the residents’ opinion of Palestinians, one person responded to a question of hers by saying, “Fuck Arabs.”

Yet, she said, the main surprise for her during the program was that it changed her conception that Israelis don’t care about Palestinians.

“All my life I heard that Israelis are extremists who hate Palestinians and saw them only from how soldiers interact with us at checkpoints. But actually, I learned that Israelis do care about Palestinians and don’t want these things,” she said.

She added that she was glad she could openly air her opinions at school for what she considers the “most complicated conflict.”

Aya Shmidt, 17, who grew up in a little town outside of Jerusalem, praised her school’s idea to run mock negotiations, saying it put all the theory she had learned into practice.

Aya Shmidt, 16, a student from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Aya Shmidt, 16, a student from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

For Shmidt’s group, she said, it was the issues of Jerusalem and borders that proved most decisive.

“They want so much — everything! — and we want to keep it,” admitted Shmidt, who represented Israel in the simulation.

As for allowing Palestinians refugees to come into Israel, Shmidt’s group decided to give priority to first- and second-generation refugees. The Palestinians as well as the UN consider all descendants of Palestinians who left Israel as a result of the 1948 War as refugees.

Priority would also be given to those with family in Israel. But, Shmidt added, if they came to Israel, they would have to give up their citizenship in their countries of birth “to prove they really want to be here.”

Khanh, 16, from Vietnam, a student from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Khanh, 16, from Vietnam, a student from the Eastern Mediterranean International Boarding School (EMIS) in Kfar Hayarok. On March 2, 2017, she participated in mock peace negotiations. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)

Khanh, 16, from Vietnam, said though she sees no parallels between her country and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she found the negotiation simulation to be “better than I anticipated.”

She said what stood out most for her was the idea that a one-state solution was not viable because of the Israeli desire to remain a majority-Jewish state that is also democratic.

She also said she noticed that Israelis and Palestinian seemed far more informed about their national conflict than her countrymen.

“I have the feeling most Israelis and Palestinians have an idea of what is going on. Back in my country, a communist country, people have less of an idea of what’s going on,” she said.

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