By Tahseen Yaqin
As part of a group of Palestinian journalists, I made my way to Jerusalem on a hot day, crossing the Israeli military checkpoint at Al-Ram with an entry permit. We were headed to the residence of Israeli president Shimon Peres, even though the Palestine Journalists’ Association had instructed us to boycott the meeting.
Travelling there, I saw West Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods for the first time. I liked the fact that signs were written in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic. And when we reached the president’s home, in the garden lawn were a few olive trees which lit up the heart. I stared at them, wondering how old they were – probably 60 or 70 years, I thought.
We were led to the entrance hall to wait for the president. When he walked in, I noticed that he looked younger than his 89 years. We watched his Ramadan address on a television screen together. When he began to talk, I realised how wise and cultured he is. His language was beautiful, not just the language of diplomats.
Some of the reporters I had come with were particularly interested in the political message contained in his Ramadan address, especially on the subject of Syria. But as a writer, I found that I was much more interested in Peres’ words about religion, culture and science than his comments about Syria and the Arab Spring.
Peres began his face-to-face talk with us with a profound discussion of Islam and Judaism, the tenets and values that these two religions share, and the differences between them. He spoke about the shared values that underlie the ritual of fasting in both religions.
He then moved on to discuss Israeli and Arab youth, highlighting the role of science and technology. You can be Muslim or Jewish, and there is no need to alter one’s religion or nationality in order to benefit from the progress made through science, he said.
Science, as President Peres sees it, has no boundaries. More new leaders, he said, will emerge from the world of technology than from the world of politics. There are thousands of friendships between Arab and Israeli youth through the Internet. There are American universities which are developing the scientific and technological means to further peacemaking. “Peace provides the means to spend money on social needs instead of on military hardware,” he said.
I was touched by his words: “We should prefer peace to war. The lives of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian youth are precious, and we should avoid wasting them.”
I asked him: “Mr President, thank you for your respect for Ramadan, and I appreciate your humane introduction to religion, technology and the future. Allow me to start by talking about Ramadan’s human spirit and the values it calls for.” I then recited the first verse of the Qur’an: “Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world.”
I remarked that the verse addresses everyone and not only Muslims. I then gathered my courage and asked: “Mr President, your authority as an Israeli thinker surpasses even your authority as President, and an important man like you has the responsibility to promote ideas that are creative, instead of purely political. In light of the deadlock [in the political peace process], the fact that you established this process, and our similarities [as Palestinians and Israelis], why don’t we [Palestinians and Israelis] all live in one state for everyone?”
He did not hesitate. He responded in a quiet and diplomatic manner, concentrating this time on the differences: “We are two different nations, in both religion and history. If we do not take this into consideration, great contradictions will surface and we will continue to fight. We want a permanent peace. The two-state solution is agreed upon and acceptable.”
He said that although the West Bank is not what it used to be, with all the crossings, bridges and roads, science can facilitate the emergence of two states. He gave the example of advanced water technologies, which can turn water from a source of conflict into an opportunity for cooperation.
This message of harnessing technology and science in aid of peace is something that appeals to Palestinians. As a messenger of peace, I would encourage President Peres – rather than speak about the problems inside Syria, which is less relevant to our reality – to focus his uniquely creative ideas on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, thereby strengthening what we share to help us overcome our differences.
Despite the current deadlock, the potential role of science, technology and culture in reconciling our peoples gives us something to be very optimistic about.
Tahseen Yaqeen is a writer and a critic from Ramallah.