During the past twenty-two and a half years, I have been actively engaged in the grass-roots work of inter-religious dialogue, education and action. While this work has had its share of ups and downs, successes and obstacles, challenges and setbacks, I can say that without a doubt, I have learned a great deal about the role of dialogue in peace-building in our part of the world by trial and error and by persistence and partnership with key organizations worldwide*.
Over the years, I have often been asked--sometimes cynically--whether our inter-religious dialogue and action programs will solve the Middle East conflict. All too often people feel that all dialogue must be political or diplomatic and that only such processes will actually solve our core problems in Israel and Palestine.
Accordingly, I want to draw an important distinction between "peace-making" activities and "peace-building" programs.
In my view, "peace-making" is the work of the lawyers, politicians and diplomats. The goal of those who engage in such work is to create peace treaties between governments, what I call "pieces" of paper. While acknowledging the importance of these political/diplomatic processes, we need to be mindful of their limitations. Once these documents are prepared and agreements are reached, public ceremonies take place with lots of fanfare, publicity, and photo-opportunities. They are considered "historic" and offer new frameworks and possibilities for the peoples who have been suffering through an intractable conflict for many years, even many decades.
After the agreements are signed, sealed and delivered, both sides spend the next several years blaming the other side for not living up to its part in the agreement (concerning the Oslo Accords signed on September 13, 1993 on the White House lawn, this has been the case for the past 20 years). This is the work of lawyers and politicians, who constantly remind each side of the legally binding nature of the agreement and the obligations of the other side to live up to the agreement.
Right now, Secretary of State John Kerry and his staff are intensively engaged in peacemaking. I hope that they succeed in creating an agreement in the very near future which will serve as a basis for further negotiations between the parties. I -and I would say that most of the people of Israel (notwithstanding our extremists, some of whom are actually part of our government!) actually would live to have peace in our region! Their success is our success. The alternative to the peace process--the war process--is much worse!
"Peace-building,"on the other hand, is not the work of diplomats or politicians. According to Catherine Morris,
The term "peacebuilding" came into widespread use after 1992 when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then United Nations Secretary-General, announced his Agenda for Peace (Boutros-Ghali, 1992). Since then, "peacebuilding" has become a broadly used but often ill-defined term connoting activities that go beyond crisis intervention such as longer-term development, and building of governance structures and institutions. It includes building the capacity of non-governmental organizations (including religious institutions) for peacemaking and peacebuilding. (What is Peacebuilding? One Definition, 2000),
Peacebuilding it is the work of rabbis, imams, priests, educators, social workers , psychologists, and many more key players in civil society, who bring people together to enter into dialogical and educational processes that are aimed at helping people figure out how to live in peace with each other. These processes--which are sometimes called "Track Two Diplomacy" or simply "People-to-People Programs"-- supplement the political processes but are very different in nature and substance. They involve long-term psychological, educational and spiritual transformations, which take place over many months and years.
There is, of course, a close connection between peace-making and peace-building processes. When there is momentum in the political realm--as there was in the 1990s with the Oslo Accords (1993), followed by the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See (1993), the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (1994) and the Wye River Agreement (1998)--then the existential and immediate need for people-to-people programs is more obvious and clear. Conversely, when there is a total freeze in political progress, as has been the case in Israel/Palestine from 2000 until 2013--with the exemplary exception of the latest negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which began several months ago, then the existential need for peace-building programs is perceived to be more distant and difficult.
Nevertheless, I believe strongly in the importance of peace-building programs, even when the political peace processes are hardly functioning. These programs keep a flicker of hope alive in an ongoing conflict. They point the way to the future. They remind us that the goal of peace is normalization, not separation. They train the people for the possibilities of peaceful coexistence among people and peoples for the future, even if this is not the reality of the present moment.
This is why my colleagues and I in the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel refuse to give in to despair, and continue to promote dialogue, education and action among religious and community leaders, educators, journalists, youth and young adults through innovative and impactful programs now, and for the future.
*These organizations Religions for Peace, Auburn Theological Seminary, the Corrymeela Community and St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.