More than a dozen ambassadors, leaders and Nobel Peace Prize laureates from previously war-torn countries are joining forces to train young Middle East leaders in a new online diplomacy academy.Slated to launch its first certificate course in March with 500 fully-subsidized Israeli, Palestinian, and Middle Eastern students under the age of 35, “The Institute for Peace and Good Governance” is the brainchild of Israeli diplomat Uri Savir.
Savir, who was the chief Israeli negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords, says that the academy addresses one of the failures of the peace process. Oslo was an “elite political process” that did not involve or influence locals on the ground to support change, he said. “If we had had such a program 30 years ago, thousands of [Israelis and Palestinians] would still be alive.”
With a roster of diplomats and experts who have negotiated peace agreements or headed reconciliation committees in Bosnia, Kosovo, Ireland, Rwanda and South Africa, the institute is being championed by former Palestinian Prime Minster Ahmed Qurei, several American diplomats, and actress Sharon Stone.
Scores of academic programs teach diplomacy, negotiations, conflict resolution and international affairs, and dozens of interfaith and peace programs already exist. Savir said that his academy will be the only one to train “massive” numbers of Israeli and Middle Eastern students together in virtual classrooms without tuition fees, learning primarily from diplomats and practitioners with real-world experience, not from textbook theories.
Savir will be inaugurating his academy against a backdrop of severe criticism in recent years from Palestinian and Israeli progressives who charge that peace institutions raise money for programs that do not translate into rights on the ground.
Aaron David Miller, an American diplomat who worked for two decades with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, will affiliate with Savir’s academy “in some capacity,” together with the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he is a fellow. Miller said that in conflict resolution, negotiations between leaders without a tandem “transformative process” for people on the ground to adapt attitudes cannot succeed. The transformative process “should not be trivialized or idealized,” Miller said.
Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), who was the chief Palestinian negotiator at Oslo, told The Daily Beast in a statement that he also believes the academy’s goal of training large numbers of leaders complements talks leading to a final status agreement. “Even if such an agreement is signed, it must be supplemented by a process of trust—and peace-building between the people or it will not stand the test of time,” Qurei said:
I see our young generations growing up without ever knowing the other—paradoxically in today's almost borderless world, there are more barriers than ever separating the people of the Middle East—physically, politically, psychologically...But through technology and the internet, the youth of the region can and are finding ways to come together, so why not use these tools to bring them the know-how and experience of the people who have succeeded in making, building and sustaining peace even in places where conflict had seemed the only possibility: South Africa, Ireland, the Balkans and Rwanda?
"I am honored to join this group of peace practitioners to share the experience I have had in thousands of hours of peace negotiations,” Qurei added.
Savir has raised over $32,000 in crowdfunding and other organizations and businesses have agreed to help the academy meet its minimum of $100,000 needed to launch, he said.
To participate, students must pass English exams and show high levels of social media activity and leadership drive. The academy is recruiting from within the online organization, YaLa Young Leaders, which Savir founded with the Peres Peace Centre and YaLa Palestine. Describing itself as a peace program for young people across Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, YaLa has over 400,000 Facebook likes.
A pilot online leadership program last year ran with 200 YaLa students from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, North Africa, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan. Aya Gomaa from Egypt said that the negotiation skills she learned there help her to debate Egypt’s political situation and look for moderate solutions. “It's so amazing to meet the enemy whom you are taught to hate by your society and then find yourself liking,” she said.
Monir, a West Bank Palestinian wants to continue receiving the leadership training, saying it's “very important” for young Palestinians “to share their point of view and solve problems together with the other side...” He will continue, he says, but won’t share his last name because participating in joint programs leads to being accused of working for Israel, “normalization” of Israel, and rejection. “It takes generations to make peace,” he said.
Savir is betting on a Palestinian state in about five years and his academy “won’t speed it up, but creates a new leadership for the region,” he said. “We need new leaders.”