Project offers template for peace process


Five Israelis, five Palestinians, one goal: a path to peace. That is Dr. Sapir Handelman’s experiment in a nutshell.

“Middle-East peace begins in the Mid-West” is the phrase Handelman uses on the flyer for this experiment in conflict resolution. Handelman is an Israeli who is the Lentz Fellow in Peace and Conflict Resolution Research at University of Missouri – St. Louis. “The Mind of Peace Experiment” is a simulation of a potential Israeli-Palestinian public assembly aimed at resolving the conflict between the two groups and finding a path to peace.

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The Israeli-Palestinian situation has been one of the most intractable conflicts in the world at present but Handelman noted that some techniques that had been used to resolve two other difficult conflicts, in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, had not been tried in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Mind of Peace Experiment brings together panels of five Israelis and five Palestinians over five sessions to discuss and negotiate peaceful solutions to the conflict. The discussions take place in front of an audience of the general public, who at the end of each session is invited to comment.

The experiment sprang out of a talk Handelman gave on the UM-St. Louis campus earlier this year. The discussion focused on his observations about the three conflicts, along with some potential steps towards resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The positive response to that talk spurred Handelman to take a further step, organizing a model version of a grassroots public assembly.

Handelman did not have a plan for the peace talks simulation before his first talk at UM-St. Louis. “With the audience, I hoped to get the support. After it, people came to me and they wanted to do this and they gave me names. It was a huge effort by many people,” he said.

The sessions are being mediated by Handelman and Mazen Badra, a Palestinian who is Director of the Bachelor’s Program at Sanford Brown College and adjunct faculty at Webster University. The event is sponsored by the university’s Center For International Studies.

The first M.O.P. session took place on Dec. 3. All sessions are scheduled to take place on the UM-St. Louis campus in room 331 of the Social Sciences Building, but the strong turnout may lead to a move to a larger space on campus.

The five sessions are on Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sundays, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., with the last session on Wednesday, December 17.

The first session was a lively, engrossing event, which took place in front of an overflow audience.

Both Handelman and Badra made opening and closing remarks. The discussion progressed by advances and retreats, with people on both sides not always in agreement, although both groups showed commitment to the process. The two delegations sat at two long tables, facing each other, with each table labeled according to the side represented.

The first session was designed to set ground rules for negotiators and establish the general priorities of each delegation. As a first step, both sides were asked to commit to ceasing violence and incitement to violence during the peace talks. While both sides agreed readily, questions were raised about how this might be enforced and how incitement to violence would be defined, as well as discussions about disarmament.

Handelman emphasized that this simulation is unique, and grassroots negotiations like this have never been attempted.

“For too many years, even in the West Bank and Gaza, most of the time the relationship between the two sides has been either through the occupation or through the economic relationship, people going to work in Israel or even the settlements, never truly to meet on the human side, one to one,” Handelman said at the end of the first session. “This is what we need to do. This is just the beginning.”

Handelman also arranged to have the sessions shown on YouTube. The video will be available at, where visitors can submit comments on the sessions.

One of the issues the Israeli side raised concerned the different Palestinian governing authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip areas. The Palestinian side declined to treat the Gaza Strip as a separate entity but agreed to discuss particulars about the West Bank area first.

A member of each panel agreed to meet to jointly work on agreements of terms for the next session. One of the key aspects of this kind of assembly is that both sides are supposed to discuss, within their delegations and between delegations, between the formal sessions.

One of Handelman’s students suggested Mazen Badra as an organizer for the Palestinian delegation. Handelman and Badra then set about finding Israelis and Palestinians in the St. Louis area willing to participate in the experiment.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations included women, which Handelman noted as an encouraging sign. In the Northern Ireland conflict, women’s groups were instrumental in resolving the conflict.

The Israeli delegation included four men, Ephraim Fass, Moshe Shtengof, Arik Poremba and Ben Poremba and one woman, Galit Lev-Harir. The Palestinian delegation included three men, Munir, Fuad and Shadi Abdlaziz and two women, Rana Yaghnam and Suzanne Yatim. Some participants wished to use only their first name.

Audience member Bob Olsham thought the simulation was very useful. “A grassroots experiment like this can grow and it could eventually go into Israel, Where there is an agreement on principles, on what the people want, and if both sides agree, they can agree how they are going to get that. Because they don’t have that now,” he said. Olsham planned to return for other sessions.

“The thing that struck me most profoundly was that the people did not seem to have had much opportunity to hear each other before,” said Virginia Frantz, another audience member. “It was just a profound experience to witness that.”

“Sapir was looking for someone in St. Louis to work with,” said co-moderator Mazen Badra, who has worked with Handelman for the past two months to prepare for the project.

Badra embraced the idea of the project quickly. “I have been involved since day one when I moved to the United States in August 2002 to reach out to the Jewish community here in St. Louis, ,” he said. “I am working directly with Rabbi Susan Talve, through the Central Reform Congregation, and we established something called Children of Abraham.”

“It was hard to find people who would be committed more than it is hard to find people who are Palestinian,” said Badra. “These are five sessions, you want people who also believe in the project, and who believe peace is possible. To be honest with you, there is more frustration here than there is among the people in West Bank and Gaza, for some reason, I do not know why. Talking to some people here, they say ‘you are wasting your time.’ This lack of confidence and trust of the other side, I think it is mutual on both sides.”

Handelman agreed. “It was very, very difficult,” he said to find participants. However, he said members of Young Israel and other congregations helped find Israelis to join the panel and participate.

Despite the negative attitudes, Badra expressed confidence in Handelman’s idea. “We are going to prove to them, and everybody, that this is the only way, the only solution, through peace talks and peace negotiations involving the grassroots, the ones who suffer on a daily basis,” he said. “They have to say enough is enough.”

Handelman felt like the first session succeeded, in that it sparked a debate and discussion without insults to either side. Ultimately, whether it would succeed depended on the delegations and their willingness to follow through with the goals.

Handelman plans to repeat this experiment in peace negotiation in various places around the world. Ultimately, they hope to create a public assembly of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel itself.

The Mind of Peace Experiment sessions are open to the general public and refreshments are served. Space is limited, so reservations are encouraged. More information is available at the Center for International Studies Web site at or by calling (314) 516-7299. Parking permits are required on Wednesdays but are free and available through the Web site or by phone request.