Elders of peace come to Israel for Mideast dialogue

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Monday, 24 August, 2009

The one thing common to members of the Global Elders is that their future is behind them. They are coming here, today, in the height of the summer heat, to listen to what plagues Israelis and Palestinians, and to try to convince them that there is another way. 

The one thing common to members of the Global Elders, a forum of elder statesman, businessmen and peace activists, is that their future is behind them. Three of them have Nobel peace prizes in their cupboards. They are coming here, today, in the height of the summer heat, to listen to what plagues Israelis and Palestinians, and to try to convince them that there is another way. 

Former US president Jimmy Carter has become of late a regular visitor to Jerusalem and Ramallah. The last time Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa came to the region, he protested from Gaza Strip that he was not allowed to break the siege and pass from there into Israel. Their colleagues in the delegation include former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland, former Irish president and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Indian human rights activist Ela Bhatt, and renowned businessmen Richard Branson and Jeff Skoll who co-founded the organization in 2007 and have supported it ever since. 

The forum was established by former South African president Nelson Mandela, ahead of his 89th birthday. It aims to engage the experience and prestige of celebrated global leaders to recruit popular support for peace building, and for dealing with humanitarian problems in crisis areas. The delegation will meet with President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, peace activists and public figures. 

Haaretz spoke to the delegation's chairman, former president Cardoso, and with Brundtland, who led the Norwegian government during those happy Oslo years. 

Ha'aretz: Do you believe it is possible to reach an agreement without the participation of Hamas? Would you recommend to Israel, as well as the Europeans and the Americans, to also try to reach out to Hamas? 

FHC: I believe it is important to link all parties. It is going to be difficult, but I believe this is necessary. 

GB: I agree with the position that the present Labor government of Norway has taken. They are different from most of the US and European positions with regard to speaking with Hamas. That happened already after the elections when they won the popular vote. You have to speak to all of them. 

Ha'aretz: What can you contribute to promote this idea? 

FHC: To promote peace and try to encourage people to participate, and to engage people in the peace process. We are going to see ordinary people in Israel and the Palestinian territories. There must be the belief that peace can be achieved. 

Ha'aretz: People in Israel will tell you that we've just held elections and the Israelis have clearly elected a right-wing government that doesn't really believe in returning to pre-1967 lines or the Arab League initiative. So what do you want from us now? 

FHC: Remember that it was Nixon who went to China to try to establish negotiations with the Chinese, so I don't think the fact that they are people sustaining a more rightist position or a more leftist position would be an obstacle. If you don't put together these people it is always impossible to reach positive results. 

GB: I'm thinking back to the Rabin-Peres pair back in '93. There was considerable support in Israel for what happened at that time. Even those who tend to think in terms that security is essential - which it is, of course - they trusted Rabin. I always felt that the assassination of Rabin was really the tragic end of the hope linked with the Oslo Accords, because the person people trusted was no longer there. So the question is, the people of Israel and Netanyahu now have a responsibility in a democracy, to try to find a way forward. Even if they vote right [wing], this is where we are and this is where we need to speak with people about what they hope for the future. 

Ha'aretz: What do you think about the decision not to allow you to visit Gaza? 

FHC: The decision was taken by us on the grounds that we have some security issues there. And we try to see if it will be possible to have communications through video with Gazan people, and maybe eventually to have contacts with people coming from Gaza in other parts of the Palestinian territories. 

Ha'aretz: Are you aware of the rumors that President Obama is to come up with an initiative soon? Do you see the visit as preparing public opinion for such an initiative? 

FHC: We have some contacts with people in the Obama administration, but we don't know exactly in what terms Obama will propose anything. I hope Obama's initiative will be a good one - I think it will be positive for both sides to accept the initiative, but we are not representing in any way Obama's government. We come by ourselves as Elders, without any instruction from governments. 

Ha'aretz: Do you believe that both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, are able to reach an agreement on those very difficult issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees without an international active role including putting on the table the ideas or maybe even a document? 

FHC: No, I think that it is necessary to have an international presence and influence to build bridges between different viewpoints. I think it's always necessary to have this international influence. But international influence cannot replace the decision-making process. And the decision-making process should be a local one. In our case as Elders, we are not in executive government, it is easier for us to help prepare people's hearts and minds to understand what's going on, how important it is to reach out to people and to see that there is an opportunity. 

Ha'aretz: Are you able to show the Israeli people some kind of positive experience you have had with your group, The Elders? 

FHC: In the case of Kenya, Elders played a considerable role. Graca Machel and Kofi Annan were encouraging both sides to be more flexible and able to understand each viewpoint. This has been positive. In November 2008, Elders Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Graca Machel traveled to South Africa to draw attention to the escalating humanitarian crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe. Their efforts successfully highlighted the cholera epidemic threatening the region, acute food shortages, economic collapse and the urgent need for regional governments in particular to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. At the beginning it was difficult, even some visas were denied, but at the end it is also clear that people like the Elders with some international influence had been helpful in getting donors to provide more aid, international resources and rebuilding of the government. 

We have in Brazil more than 10 million Brazilians of Arab descent, mainly from Syrian and Lebanese descent, and we have also a very important Jewish community. I have participated in dozens of meetings with these people together, without any difficulty in terms of cultural disagreements or anything like that, on the contrary. It is important to show that it is possible to live together. 

Ha'aretz: Your message to the Israelis and Palestinians is going to be what? What type of incentives can you give them? 

FHC: We want to hear from them what are the problems, how are people suffering - including in Gaza - and to encourage them to continue to work around an axis going toward the peace process. So we go not to teach but to learn. We go there to hear from the grass roots. It is important to work not just top down but also bottom up. 

Ha'aretz: Would you also meet with settlers? 

FHC: Well, we are not planning now to go specifically to see settlers. But we will try to meet people from the settler groups. 

Ha'aretz: You believe in engaging everyone, with Hamas from the Palestinian side and from the Israeli right as well? 

FHC: I don't want to be naive, I know that this will be difficult, I cannot say to you that everyone should be involved, but I will say some one will be at least interested in hearing what the others' points of view are.

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