They're older and wiser, and with a few hundred years of (cumulative) experience under their belts, they arrived for a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday in the hope that they might nudge along peace efforts.
The "Elders," as they are called, are a group of prominent former heads of state, renowned activists, and global business leaders who are trying to use their clout and cachet to affect change. Included in the delegation here are former President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Irish President Mary Robinson, and Britain's Richard Branson, founder of the multinational Virgin Group.
The Elders describe themselves as an "independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity," according to the group's website. But whether they will be able to lure Israelis and Palestinians to move more quickly on Middle East peace than other international interlocutors in Washington, Cairo, or Riyadh remains to be seen.
Mission: Boost peace efforts
Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is leading the delegation, said that the Elders had arrived not on behalf of any government, but in order to boost peace efforts, which have failed to truly get off the ground despite the intensive efforts of the Obama administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in London on Tuesday holding talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and is to meet with US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday amid increasing pressure to meet a compromise deal as envisioned by Mr. Obama: an expected Israeli settlement freeze in exchange for moves towards normalization from the Arab world.
"We are very supportive of current efforts to reopen negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians – and hope very much that this will happen. We also recognize that people have lost hope in the political process. We want to say to people here - peace is possible - and we will support their efforts in any way we can," Cardoso said before a meeting at an Israeli youth center. The group also went to Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and met with a controversial rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas movement.
On Wednesday, the Elders are scheduled to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres before going to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. They were also planning to visit the Kalandiya refugee camp – inside Jerusalem boundaries – and are to attend an iftar, which marks the end of each day's fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Israel says Elders shouldn't visit Hamas
Israeli officials said that while they welcome the Elders, the group was making a mistake by having planned to visit the Gaza Strip and meet with Hamas officials there. A spokesman for the Elders' visit, however, said the Gaza portion of the visit had been postponed "due to security concerns" and would not elaborate. The Elders hope to reschedule a Gaza visit in the coming weeks, the group's spokesman said.
"We think these people, with their prestige and their will to push for peace, are a very respectable group who will always be welcome in Israel," says Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry. "However, what they seem to want to do now will not promote the chances of peace, but rather the opposite. Going to Gaza and meeting Hamas officials will be very unhelpful. Hamas is still in opposition to the international Quartet's conditions, and a move towards them will be detrimental towards peace."
A Palestinian state in two years?
The Quartet, which includes representatives from US, the UN, the EU, and Russia, declared when Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006 that the Islamic movement would have to meet certain conditions in order to gain international legitimacy; these requirements included foreswearing violence and recognizing Israel.
The Elders' visit has come at a time of heightened political and diplomatic intensity. In addition to Netanyahu's trip to Europe amid a dispute between Israel and Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, Mr. Fayyad, the Palestinian premier, declared Thursday that his government would create a de facto state in two years, regardless of what happens with peace negotiations.
"The Palestinian government is struggling determinedly against a hostile occupation regime ... in order to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two years," he said in a Ramallah press conference. "This can and must happen within two years."
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz responded to Fayyad's announcement by saying that there was no place for "unilateral" measures and threats. "It is clear that a Palestinian state, no matter what its form, will not see the light of day if Israel's security concerns are not taken into account," Steinitz said in an interview on state-run Israel Radio.
How's Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to Europe going to be affected by a debate over settlements? Check out our story here. The trip is also likely to be tainted by a developing diplomatic row between Israel and Sweden, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, over a Swedish tabloid's publication of a story on alleged organ theft.
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