Elder Statesmen’s Push for Mideast Peace Revives Old Worries About Bias

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 20, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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Washington - A little-known group of rather well-known former world leaders is trying its hand at Middle East peacemaking, with a contingent scheduled to visit the region next month on a self-proclaimed mission to “help people understand the urgency of peace.” But as they attempt to help resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, The Elders, as the group is known, find themselves facing what is perhaps an equally difficult task: overcoming the deep-rooted suspicion on the part of Israel and its supporters toward several of its members.

Old Hands: New group of peacemakers includes Bishop Desmond Tutu (left) and former president Jimmy Carter.
Old Hands: New group of peacemakers includes Bishop Desmond Tutu (left) and former president Jimmy Carter.

The Elders are a group of 12 senior statesmen formed last summer by Nelson Mandela, and most of its members are household names in the international arena. What has raised eyebrows in Jerusalem are the individuals the group is dispatching to the Middle East. In addition to former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, the contingent includes Jimmy Carter, former president and author of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” and Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland who was outspokenly critical of Israel when she served as the U.N.’s high commissioner on human rights.

Israeli officials were reluctant to discuss the upcoming visit on the record, arguing that they had yet to be formally approached by The Elders. But an indication of Jerusalem’s concern about the group’s effort could be gleaned from the response of one official when asked for Israel’s views on the contingent’s individual members.

“We have no problem with Kofi Annan,” the official told the Forward.

The new peacemaking mission puts policymakers in Jerusalem in a delicate position: Israel has historically been wary of international involvement in the peace process, particularly that of mediators perceived as being pro-Arab, but if Jerusalem were to give a cold shoulder to figures of such international stature, Israel’s image as a country interested in peace could be tarnished.

The Elders are a fairly new player in the international scene, known to few outside of policymaking circles. The group was founded last July on the occasion of Mandela’s 89th birthday. The former South African leader’s intention was to create a group of senior statesmen who would use their clout and proven skills in world affairs to help solve some of the toughest conflicts around the world.

Among the dozen members of the group are South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who serves as its chairman, as well as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who led a number of international peacekeeping missions. So far The Elders’ only mission has been to Sudan, but the group has also issued statements regarding the situations in Kenya and Pakistan.

To date, the group has had a difficult time drumming up support for its effort at Middle East peacemaking. Carter met briefly with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this past October in Washington, after which her office issued a clarification stating that she had not sought the former president’s advice. Carter subsequently met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who blasted him for his views on Israel. And an attempt by the former president to convene Jewish leaders for a discussion was turned down by many of those invited.

The mission, scheduled for April 13 to April 21, will take the delegation to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Elders described the purpose of the tour in a statement as a “comprehensive analysis of the interlocking Middle Eastern conflicts.” The group intends to publish a public report following the contingent’s visit and to establish ties with non-governmental groups in the region focused on reaching a two-state solution.

One Israeli official in Jerusalem said that The Elders have not yet submitted a formal request to meet with Israeli leaders.

“These are serious people, and I don’t believe they would come here without coordinating the visit with the government of Israel,” the official said.

Another Israeli government official involved in the process of deciding how to deal with the delegation said that Israel has no policy of boycotting Carter, and that any request for a meeting would be decided on its merits.

The group’s spokesman did not respond to requests from the Forward to speak with members of The Elders about the upcoming mission.

Philip Wilcox, a former State Department official who served as the American consul general in Jerusalem, said Israel should not be concerned about the mission.

“Carter was not anti-Israel when he was president, and he is not against Israel now,” Wilcox said, arguing that it was Carter’s style more than his views that attracted criticism. “He doesn’t mince words in an area in which there is a premium for politeness and not necessarily for candor.”






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