December 16, 1998

As I write this, Jews around the world are celebrating Hanukkah, Christians are preparing to celebrate Christmas, and Muslims are approaching the month-long fast of Ramadan. My husband just made his fourth trip as President to Israel and his first to Gaza, delivering this message to Palestinians and Israelis alike: America will stand by you as you take the difficult steps along the road to peace.

In Gaza, members of the Palestine National Council cast a historic vote to revoke the parts of their charter that called for the destruction of Israel. How proud I was to witness the moment when the Council members raised their hands in favor of the changes and to see my husband deliver an eloquent and persuasive speech about the promise and rewards of peace.

In large measure, it has been this President's fierce determination, his devotion to the peace process and his willingness to persevere through dark and often sleepless nights that have helped bridge the divide between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

In Jerusalem, I watched as he laid a stone on the grave of Yitzhak Rabin -- a stone he'd carried from Wye River. Quietly, he bowed his head and asked God for the strength and wisdom to carry on the work for peace he had started with his friend.

While my husband was participating in meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, I was reminded that the hard work of peace doesn't begin or end at the negotiating table. The hard work of peace begins in our hearts, in our homes and in our communities. The hard work of peace begins when everyday people -- out of the glare of headlines -- teach their children the values we all share as human beings -- faith and family, trust and respect, hope and love.

Everywhere I went this week, I met people doing the everyday work of peace. I spent Sunday morning with Sara Netanyahu in a small village nestled among the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, overlooking the Ayalon Valley, the site of thousands of years of bloodshed. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, or "Oasis of Peace," is a unique community where 30 Jewish and Palestinian families have chosen to live together side by side, raising their children in an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence.

There, on the first day of Hanukkah, I watched as three kindergartners lit a Menorah, a Christmas tree and a Ramadan lantern. As Muslim, Christian and Jewish children joined together to sing each other's holiday songs, I knew I was looking into the faces of the children who will light the way toward a lasting peace in the Middle East.

In Jerusalem, I toured the Mother and Child Pavilion of the Hadassah University Medical Center, a cutting-edge medical facility begun by an American woman whose commitment to improving public health prompted her to send two nurses to the area. Here, religious differences have no place. Muslim, Jewish and Christian children share the same wards. And no one asks, "Are you Jewish or Christian? Do you celebrate Hanukkah or Ramadan?" The only important question is "What is wrong, and can we help?"

Later that day, I visited HIPPY, the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. There, I saw Israeli and Arab children and their mothers playing and learning together to be better prepared for schooling and citizenship. More than 10 years ago, HIPPY's founder and the President of the National Council of Jewish Women helped me plant the seeds of this successful Israeli program in Arkansas and around America.

In Gaza City, Suha Arafat proudly showed me the work she started and oversees at the Avenir Foundation, which provides much-needed special education and therapy to children with disabilities.

At the Women's Program Center at Beach Camp, a settlement for nearly 65,000 poor Palestinians run by the United Nations, I visited a class where women were learning about their legal rights. And I met several women who used small microcredit loans to turn their dreams into thriving businesses. One woman's successful dressmaking business enabled her to enlarge her house and send her daughters to school. One day, she hopes to turn her small operation into a factory her daughters will run.

While at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, I heard the story of one young girl who picked up a newspaper and saw a picture of a Jewish child and an Arab child holding hands. Confused, she asked her father why something so ordinary would be considered newsworthy.

As my husband lit the Menorah in Jerusalem and the Christmas tree in Bethlehem, we prayed for the day when Arab and Jewish children holding hands together will no longer be news. Then, we will know that the promise of peace will be real.