In 1997, representatives of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba and the Palestinian city of Qalqilya traveled together to Gainesville, Florida, to seek the assistance of the University of Florida in building a water treatment plant. That event set in motion the establishment of the first trilateral sister city relationship with an American, Israeli and Palestinian city. Gainesville, Kfar Saba, and Qalqilya partnered in a new paradigm for creating collaborative relationships at the municipal level. While city leaders from Kfar Saba and Qalqilya did not believe they could establish a bilateral relationship between their cities, they eagerly endorsed Gainesville Mayor Bruce Delaney’s proposal to form a trilateral relationship, with Gainesville serving as a bridge between Palestinian and Israeli communities. Elected leaders in all three cities provided the legitimacy and credibility for residents to comfortably take on the role of citizen diplomats, leading to the development of trusting relationships that have endured and continued to strengthen, despite political and physical barriers.
This was not Gainesville’s first foray into the arena of citizen diplomacy. In 1982, during the height of the Cold War, Steve Kalishman and Paul S. Rothstein, both Jewish Americans, convinced the Gainesville City Commission to invite the Soviet city of Novorossiisk to establish a formal relationship with Gainesville. Alarmed by increasingly hostile exchanges between the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, which had 50,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other, Steve and Paul started a movement that culminated in the pairing of more than 200 U.S. and Soviet cities, creating hundreds of cultural exchanges at a time when no cultural exchange agreement existed between the two countries. These relationships eventually helped lead to the thawing of U.S./Soviet relations, which culminated with the end of the Cold War.
Dr. Manal Fakoury, a Palestinian-American, has been active in bringing awareness to Americans of the lives of ordinary Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Her voice of reason, compassion and non-violence, as well as her vast influence with Arab and Muslim leaders in the U.S., make her an invaluable asset for the objectives of CDI.
On September 26, 2011, Manal, Steve and Paul led a delegation including Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe and City Commissioner Randy Wells, the art and music directors of a Gainesville school, and a Los Angeles-based Hip Hop group (Luminaries) as citizen diplomats to meet their counterparts in Israeli and Palestinian communities. An Israeli film crew captured more than 50 hours of amazing encounters with mayors, governors, national leaders (including Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad), businessmen, teachers and ordinary people for a feature-length documentary called When the People Lead. As a result of that two-week journey, Manal, Steve and Paul believe that trilateral sister city programs, along with other citizen diplomacy initiatives, offer the best chance for creating relationships among Israeli, Palestinian and American communities.