Step Aside, Diplomats: Mideast Youths Craft Ideas for Peace

A 'summit' of young people from the region devised solutions this week. One lesson: a need for compromise.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With the earnest certainty of youth, the 70 teenagers from Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, Egypt, and the United States who have been hammering out model Mideast accords this week are sure they're on the right track.

"If we can do it, so can the adults. But they're stuck in the old, hard ways," says Adham Rishmawi, a 16-year-old Palestinian from the village of Beit Shahour.

The youngsters were brought together for a week-long summit in the Swiss mountain village of Villars. Each had participated in a coexistence training camp in Maine run by Seeds of Peace, a group dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East.

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Now it was time to apply the hard-won skills of listening, understanding, and compromise to the intricate issues that have for decades driven the troubled region.

"Here at the summit, we're actually negotiating," says Jenny Miller, an American participant. Ms. Miller isn't a stranger to such skills. Her father, Aaron Miller, was in London this week doing the very same thing as the US deputy Middle East coordinator.

The youngsters heard from chief Palestinian negotiator Dr. Sa'eb Erakat, Queen Noor of Jordan, and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. A satellite address by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was also planned before the session ended today.

The participants were chosen by their governments to take part in Seeds of Peace, founded in 1993 by John Wallach, a former journalist. The program concentrates on the Middle East, but has also sponsored coexistence programs for adolescents from Bosnia and plans to do so for Cyprus youths. It is funded largely through donations.

In between bigwigs, the youthful negotiators were assigned to committees to fashion accords for issues including security, settlements, and Palestinian sovereignty. Jenny Miller's committee, among the most difficult and emotional, was to decide the future of Jerusalem. "It's the one the adults just won't touch," she notes.

While the final document had yet to be agreed upon, it looked as if the diverse committee members were going to allow both the Israeli and Palestinian capitals to reside in a divided city. When the committees have wrapped up their work, Seeds of Peace plans to send the results to leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Despite the coexistence training each youth had received at camp, the summit got off to a rocky start when the Palestinians strongly objected to their badges reading "PNA," for Palestinian National Authority, instead of Palestine. "Everyone else's badge said a country, but ours didn't," says Zeina Ashrawi. "It really hurt me. If a peace organization doesn't recognize us as Palestinians, who is supposed to recognize us?" asks the daughter of Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Authority's minister of education. The misunderstanding was cleared up when Mr. Wallach explained that he simply used the names listed on the governments' official correspondence.

The letterhead would change if the teens have their way: After much wrangling, the Sovereignty Committee agreed to form a Palestinian state. "We learned that there is give and take. A lot of Israelis don't believe the Palestinians are willing to give up anything, but we found realistic and reasonable solutions," says Liav Hertsman, a Tel Aviv resident who served on the committee.

"And, you know, everyone didn't feel like they had to sacrifice a lot," she added.

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