Reconciliation and Middle East Peace: A Remarkable Model

Carolyn Handschin
October 24, 2017  

For many, any hope for peace in the Middle East revolves around peace between Israel and Palestine. Yet, regardless of decades of both formal and informal peace processes, insecurity and mistrust weigh heavily on hopes for peace. Many seasoned negotiators have retired in frustration over recurring eruptions. Are the "experts" missing something?

Over the past 21 years of WFWP's Women's Conference for Peace in the Middle East (MEW), something remarkable has developed. Year after year, scores of women leaders from the MENA region have met to debate pressing issues affecting the region. Their strength, intelligence and dignity defy the stereotype of a subordinated class. The respect they express for their fathers, husbands and sons in a predominantly patriarchal society and the stories they tell of how they were empowered by them is inspiring.

During the first ever MEW in 1997, WFWP Japan President, Motoko Sugiyama, explained, "not only are women the nurturers and preservers of traditional cultural and social values, they are predisposed to resolving conflicts and making peace." Maureen Reagan said something very similar at WFWP's side event at the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. "We need only look into the mother's role in families to find the most effective models of mediation, reconciliation and peace making."

What is it that makes this tool so elusive to formal peace processes? At the 13th MEW in Greece, "Reconciliation: A first step to lasting peace," the Focal Point on Women's Issues for the United Nations Institute on Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) pointed to one important factor: Reconciliation between states is difficult because the enemy remains "faceless." Understandably, the aggressive, defensive mindset at most negotiating tables, is not conducive to sincerity and mutual concern. Women are rarely considered important partners in these fora. However, statistics published by UN Women show that the participation of women can dramatically increase the sustainability of peace accords.

Over the past 17 years, I was often called on to facilitate sessions where emotions were expected to run high. No matter what else was happening in the region, the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine seemed to have either predominant or underlying influence. Every year, it seemed like violence would flare up just days before the conference, leaving the participants raw and passionate as early as the registration table.

My first experience "mediating" was a shock. It seemed like we would never resolve the differing views and dampen emotions. The debates often felt like personal attacks. The rules dictated that everyone has the opportunity to speak and, very importantly, that everyone listen respectfully. We took unscheduled coffee breaks when the debates spiralled out of control. The first time this happened, I fully expected most people to not return to the meeting room, but to my surprise, everyone did. Their desire for future peace brought them back. Even those who seemed to have the most vehement exchanges were standing next to each other ten minutes later, calmly eating cake.

Many of these important women leaders had painful personal tragedies buried deep inside. Some of the most eminent participants were surprised at how their emotions burst forward in this "safe" environment. Heroes emerged during some of these exchanges as some women silently absorbed the frustration and hatred hurled at their culture or nation.

But as more victims began daring to make themselves vulnerable to the "enemy," we all came to understand that we were both victims and obstructers to peace building on some level. One beloved former government minister shared the painful memory of being evicted from her home as a young child; how it devastated her parents and affected her entire life. Her words came out like an accusation toward Israel. Remarkably, the lone Israeli, a former senior government official, received her anger and pain. She hesitated for a long time before responding and apologized. It is difficult to describe the power and depth of that moment. My first thought was, "Peace is actually possible." If only this could happen at the negotiating table.

Some strategists may reject the idea of reconciliation as a methodology for peace making. In the words of WFWP Co-Founder, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, "People often think that politics move the world, but that is not the case. It is culture and art...It is emotion, not reason, that strikes people in the innermost part of their hearts. It is when hearts change and are able to receive new things that even ideologies and social regimes change as a result."
Such trust and vulnerability was only possible through so many years of investing in these MENA nations. In 2011, we started inviting more young women to participate in the discussions. They were often even more outspoken then their more senior representatives. I vividly remember one discussion escalating when one such lady shared about her relative being killed by Israeli tanks just days before. We all exchanged nervous looks as the atmosphere intensified. The room went silent when a Palestinian shouted over the crowd that to a Palestinian, their brother nations turning their backs on Palestine is even more hurtful than what Israel has done to their country.

In 2014, the 18th MEW was held in both Jordan and Jerusalem, so Israeli participants could attend. Some of them risked their lives by potentially being photographed with "the enemy." I saw them flinch or turn away as they were introduced to someone they shouldn't be seen with. A highlight of that conference was a renowned Palestinian medical doctor sharing his story. A few years earlier, while tending patients at a hospital in Israel, he lost his two young daughters when rockets were fired into his home in Palestine. The room quieted as he described his shock that day. He later created an organization, I Will Not Hate, which provides scholarships for young women. That conference, too, ended with many personal victories in mutual understanding and reconciliation.

In July of this year, the 21st conference was held in at the United Nations in Vienna. The depth of candid self-reflection was remarkable. The highlight was the plenary presentation by the director of "Save Israel, Stop the Occupation." She presented an analysis of one aspect of the Israeli education system where Jewish children are taught from an early age that they are the real victims of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, even though most Israelis have never met a Palestinian. She described her fear that if her nation's government does not reflect on and reconsider their policies soon, they will bring destruction upon their people and nation.

To a surprised Arab Muslim audience, she explained that there are an increasing number of civil society initiatives in Israel that promote networking and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. There was something just and clear in the way she critiqued her own government for the injustices they have been committing unapologetically. The mature and uncomplicated way she internalized reconciliation seemed to prevent any need for reaction from the audience. That mindset would be very effective at the negotiating table.

The atmosphere in the room was excited at the end of her talk, as if they had heard something revolutionary. I fully expected the first few comments to be negative, as any speech from that country's representative would have triggered in the past. But not one! There was only appreciation. Someone even said, "Maybe there is hope for peace after all." I think every person in the room was changed that day-the culmination of two decades of this extraordinary platform.