Rachel Neiman
October 23, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

President of the State of Israel Shimon Peres is a man with a storied legacy. From spearheading Israel’s nuclear program in the 1950s to winning the 1994 Nobel Prize for Peace, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Peres has had a hand in shaping the region’s future for generations to come. Only time will tell, but perhaps his most enduring contribution to that future will be the Peres Center for Peace, which next week celebrates 10 years of change-making peace-building activities.

The Peres Center was founded in 1996 by Peres, together with its president Uri Savir, as a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization (NGO). The aim was to further Peres’ vision of a New Middle East in which people of the region would work together to build peace through socio-economic cooperation and development, and interpersonal encounters.

Peres Center activities are based on five main pillars: people-to-people dialogue and interaction, empowering civil society leaders to serve as agents of change in their respective communities; capacity-building through cooperation, creating opportunities for cross-border relations and partnerships in agriculture, medicine and healthcare, and information technology (IT); nurturing a culture of peace in the region’s youth, through programs in sports, education and culture, and IT; business and economic cooperation; and humanitarian responses, through projects aimed at reducing the mortality rate among Palestinian children and improving their quality of life.

The center forges partnerships with international partners, both to achieve its goals and to create a tangible involvement in solving problems. “Saving Children” was launched in 2003 to facilitate the referral of Palestinian babies and children to Israeli hospitals for complex investigations, diagnoses, and surgical procedures. Since its inception, the project has received some 5,600 referrals, resulting in consultation sessions, treatments and surgeries.

Support for the project comes from the Italian regions of Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Lazio, and individuals and foundations from the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US. This method of “hands-on” involvement has an effect: the Italian government deepened its commitment after a visit by Foreign Minister Franco Frattini to the Palestinian Authority this past July.

Another initiative, Peace of Mind, engages Palestinian and Israeli mental health professionals in joint professional training, dialogue, communication and cooperative work, and receives support from the Japanese Government.

Fostering a new Middle East leadership

Working with local and regional NGOs, the center has put together a range of civil leadership projects: Israeli-Palestinian women’s media network Wo.Me.N was set up with Palestinian partner the International Peace & Cooperation Center (IPCC); the Jordanian – Israeli NGO Cooperation Project, which promotes NGO between the grassroots sectors of the two countries, was founded together with the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), the Center of Education for Reconciliation and Cooperation (CERC), and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation.

Perhaps the Peres Center’s most prominent endeavor in this area is the Young Leaders Network (YLN) which, from 1998 to 2001, brought together Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli young leaders from various religious backgrounds and political inclinations. In 2004, in light of what it termed “the urgent need to bring together emerging Palestinian and Israeli leaders at a time of political stagnation,” the center teamed up with a number of Palestinian NGOs to jointly facilitate the “Palestinian-Israeli Young Political Leaders” program.

Since then, the program has brought together emerging political leaders who would otherwise not have had an opportunity to meet one another, including representatives of Israel’s right wing, such as Likud, HaIchud Haleumi, Shas, Mafdal and Agudat Israel and Palestinian representatives of Fatah, Fida, Palestinian People’s Party, PFLP and others.

The center is equally busy on the business front, working to strengthen economic relations between Israel and the Arab world through realistic business-to-business activities in industries ranging from textiles and handicrafts, to IT, shipping and international transportation, banking and biomed. At Israel’s recent Giftec exhibit, sponsored in part by the center, business deals between Palestinian and Israeli companies came to over NIS 2 million.

Stars and sports

Over the decade, the Peres Center has also built up a tradition of creative and innovative approaches to problem solving. So, for example, to further the goal of nurturing a culture of peace, the center created a Twinned Peace Sport Schools project in 2002 that provides an extra-curricular training program to young Israeli and Palestinian boys and girls from disadvantaged and outlying communities.

In addition to sports, kids also receive auxiliary educational support, peace education instruction, and participate in joint sport and social activities. Starting with a mere 70 participants on each side, the project currently reaches over 2,000 youths annually. To date, over 55,000 Israeli and Palestinian children have participated in Peres Center educational programs.

There are also the perks: this summer, youngsters from the Twinned Peace Basketball Schools program were paid a special visit by star basketball player Jordan Farmar of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The region’s future may, in fact, be in the stars. Propelled by Shimon Peres’ international reputation and much-coveted Rolodex, the center brings in celebrities to draw much-needed attention to important issues. Movie stars Richard Gere, Sharon Stone have endorsed “Saving Children” as has US President Jimmy Carter. The Twinned Schools project is regularly visited by sports heroes who then serve as Peres Center Ambassadors for Peace in their own communities.

This star power will be amped up next week during the three days of anniversary celebrations that will bring together over 500 distinguished regional and international guests; world leaders, diplomats, businesspeople, journalists, sports figures and movie stars. Performers at the gala celebration include: Andrea Bocelli, Achinoam Nini (“Noa”), Gustavo Santalaolla, Slash (of Guns N’ Roses), Mercedes Sosa, the Canadian Tenors, Dave Koz, Liel Kolet, and others. A song with lyrics by Shimon Peres, “Ray of Hope”, will be performed by famous international artists alongside Palestinian and Israeli children, as will another new song “That I Wish,” by Grammy Award winning songwriter Diane Warren.

Panelists will include Former President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn; President of FIFA Joseph Blatter, President of Real Madrid Ramón Calderon; Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses; actresses Kathleen Turner and Anouk Aimée; and a panel of world leaders will be mediated by CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

The celebration will also be marked by the inauguration of the Peres Peace House in Jaffa, a multimillion-dollar community outreach center designed by renowned architect Massimiliano Fuksas.

The event will close with a working session to launch another innovative Peres Center venture: ZOORA, a multi-faceted Israeli-Palestinian peace building initiative that utilizes film, television, and the Internet to promote peace and coexistence through the development of an independent Palestinian industry for film and TV production and co-production.

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