When President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 7, his country had just narrowly voted to reject the peace treaty he had negotiated to end a half-century of civil war with the Marxist FARC guerilla movement.
On the surface, it seemed like the Nobel Prize Committee was somewhat out of step with reality. But the committee explained that it was recognizing Santos for his “resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.”
Those efforts cannot be denied. And the country’s rejection of the peace agreement didn’t diminish Santos’ accomplishment in the eyes of the Nobel committee. As the committee explained: “What the ‘No’ side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”
Does the Colombia experience provide a lesson for Middle East peacemaking?
Since the Oslo Accord in the 1990s, Israel and the Palestinians have come close to agreements, only to have them collapse at the last moment. But what would happen if the two sides, like the Colombian government and the FARC, do reach an accord? How would the electorates react?
From past experience, we know that any agreement or unilateral act by Israel that involves giving up territory leads to right-wing opposition, and that any removal of settlers leads to acts of civil disobedience and the threat of civil violence. And while there will always be a part of the Israeli population that opposes an agreement with the Palestinians, it is worth noting that for all of its past concessions, Israel has gotten little in the way of peace.
If the two peoples are to someday make peace, their leadership must prepare them. And on that score, neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders have done much. The last time Israeli leaders began paving the road toward peace was during the Oslo period, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Nothing more has developed since.
But there is ample blame to go around. While there has been little follow through on the Israeli side, the Palestinian side never had anyone who undertook the important groundwork. Yasser Arafat, who remained a terrorist until the day he died, did nothing to prepare the Palestinians to live in a world with Israel as a neighbor. And Mahmoud Abbas has done absolutely nothing to make things better.
Peacemaking takes imagination, and an ability to see how a change from the status quo can be in the national interest. Both Israel and the Palestinians need leaders who seek peace, and who educate their citizens on the benefits it offers. Otherwise, when the two peoples finally reach their Colombia moment, their voters won’t be sufficiently prepared to embrace peace.