US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel last week, almost at the same time as the sad news arrived from South Africa of Nelson Mandela’s death. “That example of Nelson Mandela is an example that we all need to take to heart as we face the challenge of trying to reach a two-state solution,” Kerry remarked. “The naysayers are wrong to call peace in this region an impossible goal,” he added, quoting Mandela as saying: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
The African leader, who served 27 years in the apartheid regime’s prisons, became in his lifetime a shining example and symbol for those seeking freedom, equality and reconciliation around the world. The young leadership of YaLa, the movement which opens its doors to young men and women from the Middle East and North Africa, is seeking to enlist this vision of Mandela to prove that Kerry isn’t wrong. A new online project, the Arab-Israeli Peace Academy, which the organization has been developing for the past few months, will be devoted to Mandela’s memory.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, the project’s founder, Uri Savir, says the 415,000 people signed up on the YaLa Facebook page make it the biggest web-based peace movement in the world. For Savir, one of the architects of the Oslo Accord who served as director-general of the Foreign Ministry in the days of the second Rabin government, this is no less than a belated rehabilitation of the process with which he is most identified. “This is my second Oslo,” he says. “I believe peace at this time must be participatory and actively involve the young Arab and Israeli generation. Peace by people and among people can only be achieved through education.”
One of the peace camp’s biggest problems, Savir claims, is the dangerous passivity that has engulfed specifically at a time when the camp of peace opponents is increasing its activity and capturing hearts and minds. “Our vision is to encourage a new young generation of peace activists. The region will go where the young lead it — just have a look at the events unfolding in Egypt. YaLa and its academy is the revolution of the young, Arabs and Israelis, who are fed up with war and politicians,” promises the man who also served as Israeli consul in New York.
The academy’s activity in the “Internet nation,” which enables the crossing of borders that are inaccessible on the ground, is not the only innovation. No less interesting is its decision to focus first and foremost on practical lessons, which will be provided by experienced experts in negotiations from five regions familiar with conflict and wars.
“It was my brainchild to suggest a Middle East peace academy in which only peace practitioners, not academic theoreticians, would teach,” Savir explains. The teaching staff includes 20 peacemakers from the Middle East, South Africa, Rwanda, Ireland and the Balkans. South Africans, such as Nobel Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, will teach forgiveness, experts from the Middle East, such as former Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Alaa and Savir will teach peace negotiations. The theoretical aspects will be provided by academic partners in the United States — The Institute of Politics in Chicago, the Harvard Negotiation Institute, the US Institute for Peace and more.
Hollywood star Sharon Stone, the project’s presenter, told Al-Monitor in an online interview that she signed on for the project because “I feel that when we go online, we show everyone that we can erase borders, and that everyone’s pretty much the same. When we go online and we show everyone here's my mom, here's my food, here's my town, here's my life, we erase borders." The project’s fundraising page includes a YouTube clip in which Stone greets potential donors. Donors are promised various gifts bearing her name and autograph.
The model appears to mimic Mandela’s own approach. In 1944, two years after joining the African National Congress (ANC), he participated in the founding of the organization’s youth league. Decades later, on the day he was released from prison, Mandela said he wished to thank everyone who had chosen to be caring and involved in his long struggle.
In the intervening years, Mandela developed his leadership model. In a 1998 interview he granted Knesset member Avishay Braverman, then president of Ben Gurion University, Mandela said, “One must not overemphasize the importance of individual leadership,” adding that “since the founding of our movement in 1912, we have implemented the principle of collective leadership. I always consult with my leadership colleagues, and they sometimes reject my opinions.”
Another former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, who served as Israeli ambassador to South Africa in the years during which the Oslo Accord was taking shape, told Al-Monitor that on the day Mandela got word that he had been named a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liel met with the leader in a small room, where Mandela sat writing a speech. “He got up to greet me and said excitedly, ‘This morning I got word from Stockholm that De Klerk and myself are this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates . I ask, honorable ambassador, that you send a cable to Jerusalem telling your prime minister that he deserves the prize, not me.’” A year later, the prize was in fact awarded to late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and to his partner signatories to the Oslo Accord, late Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat and President Shimon Peres. Now, 20 years later, all that’s left for their successors is to reach that peace.
Another Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, is not overly optimistic regarding the prospects of the Oslo Accord. In a conversation he conducted with Israeli journalist Kobi Medan on Dec. 6, on behalf of The New Israel Fund, the Nobel Economics Prize laureate — who was recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States — dedicated much of his talk to the issue of bias. Biases make it difficult to resolve conflicts. But a hawkish bias is considered more persuasive than a dovish one, because hawks demonstrate more determination and confidence, he said.
The trust which his supporters and opponents had in him, and his ability to understand “the Other,” Kahneman explained, enabled Mandela “to cut through various biases. His ability to overcome obstacles and remain accepted by his people constitutes a model of leadership that can affect change. The chance of the same thing that happened with Mandela happening here is not reasonable,” the professor continued, but he was quick to add, “One can try and learn.”
Who knows, perhaps one of the graduates of the new YaLa program will one day learn and know how to implement and thus disprove Kahneman’s forecast. Mandela would certainly have given his blessing.