Reality Check

YaLa Young Leaders

How a Facebook organization could transform the Middle East.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

A month before the fateful Camp David summit in July 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (for whom I worked) made a last-ditch effort to bring peace to the Middle East, I got a call from my friend John Wallach, journalist for Hearst Newspapers and founder of Seeds of Peace, a conflict-resolution organization that brings young people, principally from the Middle East, into programs designed to promote understanding and trust, in Maine and in the region.

John, who had already been diagnosed with the non-smoker’s lung cancer that would take his life two years later, was excited and emotional as only he could be. "Aaron, you must convince President Clinton and Secretary Albright to host a delegation of Palestinian and Israeli Seeds kids at the summit. They have to tell Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak about what this opportunity means for the future, their future."

I humored John when he tended to dream about things that could never be, and told him I’d get right on it.

What I couldn’t say was this: John, it’s a month before one of the most decisive moments in Middle East peacemaking, and you want me to waste Albright’s time trying to arrange a meeting with Barak and Arafat for a bunch of kids? It sounds like a cute photo-op. But give me a break.

It wasn’t that I was opposed to the meeting in principle. But I worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I proposed it. After all, this was only about kids.

Only about kids, indeed.

Wallach’s frame of reference — without overly dramatizing matters — wasn’t about kids; it was about the future. I’ll never make that mistake again. As adults, we say we take the younger generation seriously, but I wonder. Certainly in politics and diplomacy, that’s not the case. We occupy a discrete physical space for a very short period of time and understandably consider it our time. We rarely take those without power and influence seriously, particularly teens and twentysomethings. Indeed, what we often ignore or relegate to token consideration — because we’re in charge and don’t have to consider it — is the possibility of taking the younger generation into our calculations in real time and making that generation part of our strategy.

And there’s little doubt that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, we’re in need of a strategy that’s generational in character. Trust me on this one. All of the problems we face today in the broader Middle East — the Arab Spring, nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria — are long movies that will produce outcomes well before they’ll produce solutions. And this will require time — the ultimate arbiter of what works and is of value in life.

And what we need is a comprehensive strategy that marries transactional diplomacy (how governments can create openings to resolve conflicts) with transformational diplomacy (how non-government initiatives supported by governments can work to change attitudes and build personal ties that break down the barriers of suspicion and mistrust).

Enter YaLa Young Leaders.

Launched in May 2011 as a joint partnership between the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine, based in Ramallah and chaired by Salah Elayyan, the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet secretary, YaLa-Young Leaders is a Facebook-based movement that promotes dialogue and engagement as a means to secure a safe, productive, and peaceful Middle East.

It sounds utopian. But the movement has grown to 355,000 people, including Egyptians (103,000), Israelis (13,800), Palestinians (22,100), Jordanians (20,500), Lebanese (2,200), Syrians, Yemenis, Sudanese (100), Turks, (8,700) Moroccans (25,200), Tunisians (24,600), Iraqis (29,000), Libyans (9,900), Saudis (3,700), Algerians (40,700), Emiratis (1,100), and Kuwaitis (1,100).

The driving force behind YaLa was Uri Savir, former Oslo negotiator and now head of the Peres Peace Center, who was inspired by lessons learned from his experiences during the negotiations. Savir’s takeaway was that the Oslo Accords — as a top-down approach — lacked the inclusiveness of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab societies. So YaLa is very much bottom-up.

Through the power of Facebook, YaLa has spread through the region. YaLa-Young Leaders provides a platform for ongoing dialogue and seeks to harness the power of youth that has driven so much of the Arab Spring and the Rothschild protest movement in Israel. In a way, YaLa can be defined as a meeting point between Tahrir Square and Rothschild. Rather than meet once a month, as Israeli and Arab negotiators might do, YaLa allows thousands of interactions a day on a variety of issues from protests in Egypt, to Syria, to the latest international crisis between young Arabs and Israelis who physically cannot engage. To imagine thousands of young Arabs and Israelis with 24/7 access to one another is to imagine the future.

Now with 355,000 members, it’s the biggest movement of its kind in the region and has developed partnerships with governments, including the United States, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as the support of private-sector companies such as Microsoft and Facebook. YaLa’s members are active, not only in ongoing dialogue, but also in peace advocacy through the promotion of YaLa’s Peace Initiative and in YaLa’s Online Academy (YLO@), with online courses for Arab and Israeli students from leading universities in the United States, such as Princeton, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and University of Michigan. It has also launched an online media platform, YaLa Media Cafe, with blogs from young leaders emphasizing peace, democracy, and gender equality.

John Wallach was a dreamer. But like Uri Savir, he also understood reality. And in a historic conflict likely to take time to resolve, investing in a younger generation is critically important.

"The aim of YaLa-Young Leaders," Savir told me, "is to be a regional voice for the generation of change in the MENA region in order to promote common values and aims in relation to the respect of human rights, democracy, peace, and economic cooperation…. I believe that in these times, governments in the region and the international community will have to listen more carefully to the voices of young constituencies in the MENA region as expressed on YaLa. It is a voice of change, equality, and hope."

And who can argue with that?

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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