The ceremonial signing of the Geneva Accord last week is significant not for its content, but for what it reminds us about the challenge of peace-building. Peace agreements have often faltered because they are made between governments alone and not their citizens, yet they will never succeed without broad public engagement. In lacking concrete measures to bring broader segments of opposing populations together, both the Geneva Accord and the Road Map much resemble roads previously traveled.
Such plans will only succeed if the voices of the future are empowered today to play a constructive role and given a stake in implementation. Indeed, given the questionable durability of current leaders on both Israeli and Palestinian sides, it becomes even more critical to focus on the future ones. Thus the spirit of Geneva must be carried back into the Israeli and Palestinian people — particularly the youth — if it is to take hold with the next generation of leaders.
For every setback to the Oslo accords, Madrid peace conference, Wye treaty and now the Road Map, future casualties have been prevented through unofficial dialogues among the next generation of Arab and Israeli leaders, where they build relationships based on trust and mutual respect. It is a reality seen every summer since 1993 at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine, where future leaders of Israel and an independent Palestinian state have come together to understand “the other,” and managed to continue their relationships back home where it matters most. Such efforts to bring hostile populations together succeed in putting a face on the enemy — and it is more often than not a friendly face, with shared concerns and goals. Indeed, on both sides of the fence, people overwhelmingly claim they are tired of a conflict that has lasted their entire lifetime and, as the Geneva Accord shows, may even support a similar vision of final settlement.
But there is a long way to go. Ten years after the Oslo Accords, the debate over the construction of a more than 300 kilometer-long fence along the West Bank masks a far greater barrier between Arabs and Israelis which has existed for decades. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat described to the Israeli Parliament in 1977, there is “another wall: This psychological barrier which constitutes 70 percent of the whole problem.” But much like the Berlin Wall, the fence will preserve the status quo: fear, ignorance and misperceptions.
As playwright Berthold Brecht remarked, “War is like love; it always finds a way.” Indeed, Hamas runs summer camps that are many times the size of the Seeds of Peace camp. Building the “peace constituency” in war-ridden societies therefore requires far greater resources for people-to-people diplomacy, as advocated in the recent Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission’s report. Providing young people with opportunities to practice the principles of co-existence can temper the voices of radicalism.
We have reached a demographic turning point in world affairs where leaders who experienced decolonization and the conflicts stemming from it are passing from the scene. In many parts of the world, their replacements have grown up knowing only civil war, oppression and terrorism. The spoilers of negotiated progress are therefore not only intransigent leaders, but also disenfranchised and disillusioned teenagers who see no alternative to extremism. No movement has succeeded without the support of youth — a fact all the more relevant in the Middle East, where youth make up more than 50 percent of the population. Besides the Middle East, the world’s other intractable conflicts — between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus, and the Northern Ireland dispute — are similarly “generational.”
In all such cases, the true hope for a lasting settlement lies not in the treaties negotiated by governments but in the peace made by people, particularly by the youth. The U.S. House of Representatives, in its recent Concurrent Resolution 288, reaffirms that “youth must be involved in long-term, visionary solutions to conflicts perpetuated by cycles of violence.”
Regional and world leaders strongly support such efforts which bring together those for whom they are negotiating future peace, and themselves preach tolerance and respect. Yet they fail to make the necessary investment in that future, using such programs as useful props for photo opportunities rather than as central to the peace process. Only by making young people a vehicle for peace — rather than mere bystanders to an incremental process — will agreements translate into a lasting commitment to peace in voting booths and on “the street.”
By supporting small-scale local and international programs to promote coexistence now, new roads to a peaceful future are built, ensuring that when the brave graduates are in positions of authority, they will choose reconciliation over revenge.
Youth are on the frontlines of these conflicts; they are the soldiers, the victims, and all too often the suicide bombers. It’s about time they were put on the frontlines in the battle for peace.