Forget what you've heard about the Arabs and the Jews, or blacks and Jews or even Christians, Moslems and Jews for that matter. I saw something last weekend that said to me that, no matter what differences there are between these groups, there is hope for peaceful coexistence.

The setting was a house in Silver Spring, the home of a school teacher, Laurie Friedman, who had laid out all sorts of wines and foods from the Middle East. And guess who came to dinner?

There was Khalil Jahshan, assistant director of the Palestine Research and Educational Center, enjoying his dish of hummus and tabbouleh alongside Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset; there was Farouk Helmy, a minister from the Embassy of Egypt, standing next to author I.F. Stone and Franca Brilliant, who is cochairwoman of the Washington Area New Jewish Agenda, and more than 50 other people with associations in many parts of that troubled region known as the Middle East.

Silver Spring is a long way from Beruit. But watching people eat and laugh, talk and shake hands instead of fighting gave me -- and obviously a lot of others -- a clearer picture of what we are dealing with in the Middle East: people.

Now this will no doubt seem naive to hardliners on all sides of the Middle East question, but the idea of bringing people together for relaxed conversation probably goes further than all of the official posturing about a "peace process." One thing is for sure: the dinners certainly last longer.

"There is nothing genetic about our dispute -- in fact we are all Semites," said Mark Cohen, a Washington lawyer. "We believe that it is quite possible for Jews, Arabs, Palestinians to come together for a 'friendship dinner' and feel comfortable with one another."

The reason for this is that Jewish members of the group believe in the Palestinians' right to self-determination, and the Arab members of the group support the right of Israel to exist behind internationally recognized borders.

The group was formed by Jews in l982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. One of the founding members, Ellen Siegel, a Washington nurse, noted that it was the first time that a group of Jews had publicly questioned Israeli policies. But there was more to the concept of the friendship dinner.

"Personally, I wanted Jews to meet Palestinians because the word Palestinian had become so stereotyped," Siegel said. "Many Jews had never met one. I also wanted Palestinians to know that there were Jews who were concerned about the plight of Palestinians."

After several protests about the invasion, the group -- called the Washington Area Jews for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace -- sought underlying reasons for the crisis, and concluded that it was the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands, the statelessness of the Palestinians and the lack of recognition of Israel by the Arab world -- except Egypt.

Although the friendship dinners continue to attract more prestigious members, the influence so far has been minimal. A powerful Israeli lobby, with an almost singular interest in the security of Israel, continues to dominate the decision-making of high ranking U.S. officials.

Yet, two public opinion polls commissioned by the American Jewish Committee shows that there does not exist a monolithic Jewish view as some lobbyists claim and that, in fact, there are more Jews here and in Israel who are willing to make compromises in the name of peace than those who are not.

"The thing that makes these dinners work so well is that everybody comes to them as equals," said Khalil Jahshan. "It's none of that 'I win, you lose,' but, 'We share.' "

Admittedly, it's easy to talk like that when the setting is a comfortable living room in Silver Spring. But these are people who make regular trips to the Middle East, have friends and contacts there and who know, above all, that achieving real peace takes time.

And, as everyone knows, a journey of a thousand miles should begin with a glass of wine.