04/14/2014 09:13 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Ron Pundak and the Legacy of Middle East Peace

In the midst of Middle East turmoil, few recognize the personal sacrifice by those who relentlessly champion peace. Ron Pundak, one of the initiators of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, who passed away this week, embodied the daring efforts to build bridges in the hearts and minds of the people of the region. This is a story about a man who under ordinary circumstances would have been remembered as an academician, journalist and art patron, but turned out to also be a visionary and peace fighter.

The ability of a gentle man to impact the course of history under trying conditions cannot be taken for granted. Many scorned, criticized and even tried to sabotage the peacemaking efforts. At a time when nobody thought that negotiations were possible nor legitimate, when political leaders did not know what peace may look like, a group of academicians articulate parameters of a peace deal, marketed them and then delved on the fine actionable details. This was about drawing what were unthinkable maps, and bringing them all the way to the Oval Office. The architects of the peace process came up with preambles that introduced a new vocabulary, which would later establish the common language of peace. Moreover, they directed multiple groups of experts who served as pioneers, developing concrete change plans in uncharted areas, for everything from joint policing and education for peace, to new tax policies and shared sewer systems. Idealistic as some of this work was, it did lay the foundations for long-standing cooperation de facto, which continues even during trying times.

But as importantly, Ron Pundak led a journey toward building trust between individuals, transforming former enemies into allies. A delicate fabric of cooperation between broad coalitions was created through long discussions into the night and meetings that took place all over the world, and then at home. NGOs and government officials learned to make baby steps, working to establish coexistence. Endless handshakes and hugs made friends.

Challenged by harsh political realities, Ron Pundak's efforts to engage wider audiences, so that they get to know each other personally, was never easy. Both Israeli and Palestinian oppositions were vocal. Ultra nationalists kept pushing for unilateralism and aggression. And, realistic sceptics often found it hard to live up to a vision of change and overcome the obstacles. On top of that, security requirements, bureaucratic red tape and deep psychological suspicion required endless phone calls just to ensure that a single bus would arrive at a joint event, or a local governor would not overrule a mayor seeking neighborly youth dialogue. In this context, although we constantly hear of hardships and stagnant negotiations, Ron Pundak served as a beacon of hope, by continuously promoting projects that brought Israelis and Palestinians together, be it children in soccer matches, doctors in training, media professionals, artists, educators and many more.

Admittedly, over recent years, doubts have been raised within the Israeli peace camp and the Palestinian one as to the feasibility of signing and successfully implementing a comprehensive peace deal. The price that both parties have paid is dear. Yet, Ron remained optimistic and resolute. Even while in a minority position in the democratic Israeli discourse, Ron maintained his clear voice and strong commitment, reminding everybody that coexistence and reconciliation will come, and that we can all play a role in bringing this day closer through dialogue, mutual compromise and daily action.