Star power brightens spirits of Mideast peace-seekers

DALIAT AL-CARMEL, Israel — Away from the big city tumult, residents in this quiet Druse village on Mt. Carmel in the Galilee are enjoying a dose of stardust.

Actor and political activist Richard Gere dropped in for a visit and told a select group of Jews, Arabs and Druse that perhaps religious leaders should take the reins of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Gere came to Israel at the invitation of his friend Bernie Glassman, an aeronautical engineer and mathematician who has become a Zen Buddhist. Glassman is founder of the Peacemaker Circle, a global, multifaith network combining spiritual practice and social action.

Gere's "emotional explorations" have taken him from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism, which brought him close to the Dalai Lama and have made him a prominent voice in the United States for the Tibetan freedom movement.

Glassman and Gere hoped they might harness their spiritual resources to resolve the seemingly endless conflict between the Holy Land's warring parties.

On Monday, the two came to the residence of veteran Druse peace activist Sheik Ali Birani to talk peace — or rather, to listen to a seemingly endless barrage of peaceful messages.

Gere spent most of the meeting listening politely, then admitted that it was still not quite clear to him how he could contribute to "positive solutions."

However, the hosts treated Gere as if it were only a matter of convincing him for peace to break out.

Birani invited a number of influential friends, including Israel's former absorption minister, Yuli Tamir; Dan Pattir, executive vice president of the Abraham Foundation; Rabbi Yitzhak Bar-Deah, chief rabbi of Ramat-Gan; and Sheik Abdul Salam Manasra, head of a Sufi Muslim sect that believes in separating religion and politics.

While all agreed that it's crucial to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, none had the answer for how to do it.

Bar-Deah suggested that the problem of Jerusalem should be resolved by religious leaders who could work out a formula satisfying the aspirations of all religions, and Gere quickly praised the idea. He, too, shared the feeling that the most effective way to achieve peace is "through meetings like this one" and political dialogues among religious leaders, "in the spirit of the Dalai Lama."

Everyone nodded in agreement — then rushed to stand in line for a group photo with Gere, who had to inform his fans that there would be only "one more, absolutely final photo until the end of the day" — which, alas, was followed by another photo, and yet another and another.

Gere was the second mega-star to visit Israel in a week. Singer Whitney Houston came last week "on a spiritual visit" as a guest of the Black Hebrews in Dimona, and resolved to come back in the fall to film a Christmas special.

Though few Israelis took the two visits as the light at the end of the intifada tunnel, certainly they represented a refreshing change from the time when celebrities struck Israel off their itineraries, either for security reasons or to make a political point.

Indeed, Prince Assiel, a representative of the Black Hebrews in the United States, said Houston came to "promote tourism to Israel." But both stars were careful not to make any binding political statements.

Of course, the problem with such visits is the partial image the visitor gets. One could get the impression from the visit in Daliat al-Carmel that all Jews and Arabs are devoted to peace, and only a handful of political leaders are blocking their way.