OTISFIELD – Representatives of Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were transplanted from their Washington offices to the woods of Maine on Sunday to answer questions on the Middle East.
The diplomats were visiting the Seeds of Peace International Camp, which began its second session of the summer on July 23. One-hundred-and-sixty Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, and American teenagers are currently attending the camp.
The campers, all wearing green Seeds of Peace T-shirts, filled a temporary auditorium of folding chairs outside a small shelter, from which the diplomats answered questions.
Each of the representatives introduced himself with a short speech prior to the question-and-answer session.
Salai Meridor, the Israeli representative, said Middle East peace should not simply be obtained in the upper echelons, but among the younger generation as well.
“We should not give up hope,” he said.
Afif Safieh, the PLO’s ambassador to the U.S., was reminded of two sayings: that politics was too important to be left to the politicians, and that politics should be taken care of so it can take care of you.
“I always say to my students it’s the optimists that make history, not the pessimists,” Safieh said.
Noting the camp’s name, he said it was “time to make the harvest.”
Walid El-Fiky, the political director and second secretary for the Egyptian Embassy, said he was “amazed” by the people he met at the camp.
Prior to the questions, the representatives were led on a brief tour of the camp before meeting with campers from their respective nations for a closed half-hour discussion. Rony Yedidia, deputy chief of the mission for the consulate of Israel to New England, also attended the Israeli discussion, and was present on stage during the questions.
Campers from the U.S. and Maine Seeds, a regional offshoot of the program, heard from Tim Wilson, a former director of the camp.
Though the Jordanian ambassador to the U.S. had been invited to the camp, he was unable to attend. Campers from Jordan attended the discussions headed by El-Fiky and Safieh.
During the questioning session, ambassadors showed support for a two-state solution. Safieh said the solution was not without problems, but “the least unattractive” of the solutions offered for the Middle East crisis. He said more than 70 percent of the Israeli and Palestinian populations supported a two-state solution.
Meridor said he would advocate a two-state solution at every opportunity, though he urged the campers not to miss any possible chance to help improve the situation.
When asked what the campers could do to help spread word of their experience and knowledge on the conflict, Meridor said improved information technology such as the Internet could help them.
“There’s nothing more important than sharing these stories with young people,” he said.
Meridor said that the peace process was a difficult one, but possible given historical precedents.
“Who thought there would be peace between Egypt and Israel?” he asked. “Who thought we would be sitting together on the same dais?”
Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Meridor also noted the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which was signed in 1994.
Safieh urged the audience not to dwell on the past, but rather to look to the future.
“History is undecided,” he said. “It is up to us to help shape the future.”
Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by the late journalist John Wallach in response to the first attack on the World Trade Center. The organization is dedicated to “empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance reconciliation and co-existence,” according to the Seeds of Peace Web site.
During each session, a group of second-year, peer-support campers travel to Washington to meet with officials, though this summer has seen changes to that program. Earlier this month, the selected campers went to New York City to meet with Palestinian and U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations and to tour the headquarters of the Clinton Global Initiative.
This is the first time ambassadors have visited the camp, said Elisha Meyer, special projects and development associate with the Seeds of Peace headquarters in New York City. She added that the event will replace the session’s usual trip.
“Maine is nicer than Washington in August,” she joked.