When Eytan Epstein and Essam Al Tamimi met at the International Bar Association (IBA) Conference in 2010 there was an instant chemistry between the two lawyers, which led to a professional and personal friendship that went far beyond collegial cooperation and has even made its own modest impact on the long road to Middle East peace.
Both men are senior partners at their law firms, which are among the leading and largest in their countries. Epstein at M. Firon & Co in Israel, and Al Tamimi at Al Tamimi & Co., which he founded and chairs, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The initial encounter was brief, but the results have been far reaching. The two men had many discussions about how they can contribute for a better future and subsequently initiated the "Young Leaders Discussion Group" program, which promotes dialogue between Israel and Palestinian and Israeli Arab lawyers.
Today 10 years after that first meeting, and in the wake of the recent signing of the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement between The UAE and Israel, Essam and Eytan are again together to open this year’s IBA Annual Conference, which features a panel to discuss the peace agreement and how the idea that they have striven for since their first meeting has become a reality.
The IBA was founded in 1947, shortly after the establishment of the United Nations. 190 Bar Associations and almost 100,000 lawyers from around the world are members of the IBA. The organization develops and promotes the rule of law, civil rights, and the status, contribution and influence of lawyers and he rule of law in every country worldwide.
Eytan Epstein has been an active member in the IBA since 1989. Since meeting Essam Al Tamimi, the two senior lawyers have held many discussions over the years about their joint desire to mobilize the organization to support activities that bring together lawyers in the Middle East for professional cooperation, which would promote mutual respect and direct dialogue between them.
In 2010, the IBA decided to hold its 2011 annual conference in Dubai and as Israel and the UAE had no diplomatic relations, the IBA set a precondition that Israeli lawyers would be allowed to attend the event. This was something that could not be taken for granted at a time when the UAE had a policy of not allowing Israelis into the country. Essam El Tamimi was Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Conference and together with Mark Ellis, the Executive Director of the IBA, worked strenuously to ensure that Israeli lawyers would be permitted to travel to Dubai. Eventually, the Israelis were able to participate in the conference and Eytan Epstein was one of the first-ever Israeli lawyers to visit Dubai.
Following this historic breakthrough at the Dubai conference and with the encouragement and leadership of IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis and President David W. Rivkin, a Partner at the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm, Eytan and Essam took advantage of the momentum. The initiative was joined by Washington-Based Homer Moyer, a member of the IBA and also the Founder and Chairman the CEELI Institute in Prague, a non-profit and non-governmental organization for advancing the rule of law.
At one meeting these lawyers decided to set up the "Young Leaders" program with funding and support from the IBA and CEELI. Through the support, leadership and determination of Mark Ellis, Homer Moyer and David W. Rivkin, together with the support and participation of Ibtissem Lassoued, Essam’s partner, the program began in 2015.
Setting up the Young Leaders Program
About 300 CVs were sent to the organizing committee of the program and many candidates were interviewed, all of them talented and high-quality lawyers under the age of 35 who are deeply concerned and involved in social issues and had leadership abilities. Ultimately 12 lawyers were selected, some of them Israeli Jews, some Israeli Arabs and some Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.
These lawyers flew over a period of several months to the CEELI offices in Prague where they met and got to know each other and form personal friendships and professional relationships, and of course to take part in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of international law - and lawyers - in settling the conflict.
The participants took various workshops - the first including an Imago-style workshop initiated by Homer Moyer, which was facilitated by an Israeli and a Palestinian, both Imago therapists, and assisted enormously in breaking down the walls of their initial suspicions.
Homer Moyer recalls, "We later learned that these young lawyers meeting for the first time thought this experiment might last just a few hours. Instead, using a counseling technique as a communication tool, the group not only developed friendships, but also, even more importantly, the ability to discuss historically divisive issues. Their extraordinary experiences hold lessons for us all".
The group received a series of lectures and attended discussions on the Israel Palestinian conflict given by senior figures in various fields (politics, government etc.) including a former Jordanian Prime Minister, Oslo Peace Accords architect Yossi Beilin, Brigadier General Ilan Paz, top officials from the US State Department, former Quartette head Kito de Boer, and other leading figures from the Israeli government and defense establishment, the EU and US. The members of the group held also exciting and emotional meetings with social organizations including representatives of the Forum for Bereaved Families, and more.
In 2016, the IBA held its annual conference in Washington DC where the program and its achievements were presented for the first time. During the event there was a panel with the participation of several of the lawyers who had taken part in the program, and they spoke about the process they had undergone during the program, the friendships and the professional relationships that that they had formed, and their hopes for the future.
After hearing the stories from lawyers who had never previously been able to meet and become friends, due to the existing political circumstances, there was not a dry eye among the 700 people in the conference hall. Mark Ellis recounts, "In my nearly two decades as director of the IBA, there are few projects that have brought me greater satisfaction and pride than the Young Lawyers project. It demonstrates the convening power of the IBA and the visionary leadership of all the participants, and, above all, the friendship of two extraordinary lawyers".
A peace agreement may have been signed between Israel and the UAE but the program has bigger ambitions for the coming years, and it plans expanding activities to larger groups and to more locations worldwide.
David W. Rivkin says, "The Israeli-Palestinian Young Leaders Discussion Group was one of the most satisfying experiences of my IBA Presidency. The participants bonded immediately and discovered that they have so much in common that together they overcame the wall that separates them. All of us learned so much about how to achieve peace and to recognize each other’s humanity. Following the great examples of Eytan and Essam, they will be friends forever and hopefully will help lead their countries to peace."
Today, 10 years after the first meeting between Essam Al Tamimi and Eytan Epstein and five years after the launch of the Young Leaders program, Eytan and Essam are together opening the IBA Annual conference with a panel in which they will speak about the peace agreements and their significance and also how one friendship perhaps succeeded in changing, just a little, the Middle East.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 2, 2020
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