Grassroots peace project concludes successfully, professor says

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The experiment in grassroots Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking which Israeli professor Sapir Handelman had organized on the UM-St. Louis campus, wrapped up successfully on Wednesday, December 17. Both moderator Handelman and his Palestinian counterpart, Mazer Badra, felt like the experiment in grassroots peace negotiation was a success.

Both professors were so encouraged by how well the process went that they plan to repeat the experiment at UM-St. Louis in February and eventually expand to other cities in the U.S. and then the world. They hope to take the concept to Israel eventually.

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Israeli Sapir Handelman is the Lentz Fellow in Peace and Conflict Resolution Research at University of Missouri – St. Louis. Palestinian Mazer Badra is Director of the Bachelor’s program at Sanford Brown College and adjunct faculty at Webster University. The peace experiment was sponsored by UM-St. Louis’s Center For International Studies.

Although Handelman and Badra had not met before the experiment was organized, they found they had much in common and have formed both a friendship and research partnership, based on their mutual commitment to finding a path to peace.

The “Mind of Peace” experiment brought together panels of five Israelis and five Palestinians in the St. Louis area, to meet at five negotiating sessions to work out a peace agreement.

Handelman’s idea was to try out a people’s peace assembly, a strategy used successfully in South Africa and in Northern Ireland during their intractable conflicts but not yet tried in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The public was encouraged to attend the formal sessions, which each met for two hours on the UM-St. Louis campus. Each session had an agenda and was followed by a chance for the public to comment.

The sessions were videotaped and posted on YouTube, along with documents produced by the experiment, at www.youtube. com/peaceexperiment.

The first session met Wednesday, December 3, with the panels meeting on Wednesdays and Sundays for five sessions. All sessions took place on the UM-St. Louis campus.

Individual panel members sometimes changed from one formal session to another. The groups were encouraged to meet, among themselves and with members of the other group, to work out solutions behind the scenes.

In the final session, the panels were to verify a peace agreement for a two-state solution. Although the agreement had been drawn up by subcommittees of both sides, it was sometimes slow going, as questions were raised and tempers flared over difficult points.

Still, each side seemed committed to making progress. As the evening grew late, the moderators asked the audience to hold their questions, to allow the panels to continue to work, a request was met with a resounded yes.

The two groups continued to work until they reached the last item but, at an hour past deadline, it became clear that a quick agreement was not possible.

The two panels agreed to finish the agreement at a private session, to allow the audience to have their time.

One audience member said she was amazed that the two groups would disagree, with raised voices and everyone talking at once, but then just quickly move on after someone suggested a mutually acceptable compromise.

The observation led one Palestinian to quip “welcome to the Middle East,” a comment met with laughter from everyone.

“In my opinion, the experiment (was) very successful, not necessarily from the immediate result of the negotiations but from many levels,” said Badra.

“The first level, it is probably the first time we see Palestinians and Israelis on the grassroots level, people-to-people, sitting in one room, talking about their feelings and concerns, needs and peace, and all that stuff. That is huge to me.”

“And second, it’s successful because we had an audience who came from the first night to the last night, and it was always packed. So every time we had a full house, which shows they were interested and what we were doing really motivated them to come back,” he said.

“On the third level were the results,” Badra said.

“I think we got very good results. I was satisfied with the experiment and we came out with three important documents. One is about the confidence-building measures and also the last one, the peace agreement, which is still under editing.”

“One of my academic goals is to use this experiment to develop a theory for people-to-people negotiations,” said Handelman.

“Instead of leaders, ordinary people. It was not just a simulation of a Palestinian-Israeli assembly but people-to-people negotiations. We have five Israelis, ordinary Israelis, and we have five Palestinians but we don’t have a theory for this kind of setting.”

The evening ended on a celebratory note, with Handelman’s wife Yael providing a bit of musical entertainment with Israeli and Palestinian songs for the closing session of the project.