Talking with the enemy
It was perhaps not surprising that when asked, "how many of you think there will be an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal before the end of Obama's second term?" only a few of the audience of students, academics, policy makers and supporters of the Olive Tree Programme responded positively.
The questioner and chair for the evening, Lyse Doucet (pictured,right) the BBC's estimable Chief International Correspondent, probably didn't expect a very different response but it provided a stark reminder of how far away a solution to the problems in the region seem to be.
The event, which was organised by Rosemary Hollis, Director of the Olive Tree Programme and Professor of Middle East Policy Studies and her team, brought together alumni, three from Israel and three from Palestine, to share first-hand, their experiences back home, after graduation, working in public and third sector organisations to alter the reality that frames their lives.
Before the panel session the audience heard from current students, still going through the programme, who painted a vivid picture of the rewarding, but sometimes emotionally and intellectually challenging, experience they have had since moving to London and joining the Olive Tree Programme.
One alumna on the panel, Noam, spoke of her work with B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, which she attributed to her Olive Tree experience. She felt the weight of Palestinian expectations on her, to do what she could to address the injustices.
Another graduate, Layaly, explained how making friends with individual Israelis did not alter her commitment to defending the Palestinian cause. She is an activist who advocates a non-violent revolution to resist the occupation and restore a sense of meaning and hope in Palestinian society.
Several times the speakers returned to the subject of enmity and friendship coexisting. The meaning of friendships, especially between individuals on opposite sides of a conflict, was an issue with which they struggled during the programme and on which they are still reflecting.
All three Israelis said they had come to the realisation that they can and must hold two narratives in parallel in their hearts and heads. There can be no elimination of one to uphold the other. This is the realisation that they feel distinguishes them from Israelis who have not 'talked to the enemy'.
Professor Rosemary Hollis, said: "It was fantastic to welcome back our graduates and hear first-hand of their experiences in their homeland. Their education here at City has had a real impact on their attitudes and appreciation of one another, which is one of our aims.
"Lyse Doucet was masterful in the chair - so experienced in covering the politics and conflicts of the Middle East, and so adept at enabling individuals to tell their stories - she brought together all the different strands that emerged in the Forum and the audience were spellbound throughout."
A workable peace agreement before Obama leaves the Whitehouse? After hearing the impassioned, articulate, intelligent and inspiring discussion led by these current and former students perhaps a few more in the audience might just think that is a possibility.