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Newsletter for April 2002

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Leadership, organisation and forgiveness in the Middle East


1  Outline

Forgiveness is in many ways a naive and irrelevant dream for Israel and Palestine today.  Yet it is also at the same time the most fundamental hope for both peoples' wellbeing.

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What we can begin to understand is the underlying view of power and leadership which both sides cling to, that makes forgiving even harder and more remote.   We need to hope and work for better examples of leadership, in all types of organisation and every nation state.

  1. Reaction upon reaction - Tony Blair: do we condemn them or help them?
  2. The desire need for state power - despite the huge imbalance in resources, both Israel and Palestine aspire to the same flawed idea of power, idolising the nation state
  3. Tutu : quality of leadership - a different aspiration to leadership is needed
  4. Leadership and forgiveness - Michael Lerner calls for non-violence, but weak leaders cannot do this, or forgive; yet creative leaders can

2  Reaction upon reaction

The past month of horrifying and escalating violence between Israel and Palestine has led to many cries of protest around the world.  Here in the UK, some British MPs called for Ariel Sharon to be charged with war crimes for the apparent massacre at Jenin.   Others claim that Yasser Arafat's lack of authority over Hamas terrorists is at least as grave a crime - one MP described Arafat as a "paymaster of terror."

Both peoples are embroiled in an extraordinarily intense cycle of response upon response.  Hamas leaders say that in response to the re-occupation of the West Bank, they will begin using suicide bombers 'equipped' with military grade explosives.

To call for a spirit of forgiveness seems both absurd and yet fundamental, both pious or irrelevant and yet the only hope for the future.  It is not only a quality to be 'demanded' of belligerent military leaders somewhere else; are we able to forgive Sharon or Arafat, and help them move in a new direction?  As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it recently, "Yes, what is happening in Jenin is appalling and tragic. So is large numbers of totally innocent Israeli citizens being blown up in cafes, restaurants and even during religious services.  But we can either sit round as leaders round the world wringing our hands and condemning it or we can relaunch a political process."

What we human beings hope for does at least lead us to behave differently towards the people whose lives we impact, which is why hopes should be as focussed as possible.  Can we at least see something here about what a focussed hope for forgiveness entails?

3  The desire for state power

When Sharon demands that Arafat control and limit the suicide bombers, that appears to be an unrealistic demand, based on false assumptions (in the developed world) about power and equality.  The evidence is that no one in Palestine has that kind of power - it needs a lot of money and organisational force. The UN's Middle East peace envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, says more than 75% of Palestinians are unemployed, and that the economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have hit 'paralysis'.

By contrast, Israel is an powerfully organised military force, funded in large measure by the US.  It even claims some kind of implicit equality with the US by "initiating a war against terrorism."  The difference between the two is sometimes painted as a 'David and Goliath,' with Palestine as David.  It is the difference between a regime which imposes its rule and curfews, causing deprivation and humiliation, and a small minority who lack military muscle and protest - inhumanly - by sending and being suicide bombers.  The difference between a man in a tank and a man holding a small rock.

But, even though the degree of economic and military power is so different, that does not allow us to condemn Israel more than Palestine.  Palestinian leaders would like to attain such power just as much as Israel has it.

Both sides want the kind of power and leadership that is sanctioned and authorised by 'state' organisations

The deepest trouble in the conflict is that both sides want the kind of power and leadership that is sanctioned and authorised by state organisations.   Statehood is the fundamental icon ... preserving the 'new' or 50-year old state of Israel, or establishing a new state of Palestine.  This is why Israel could claim so passionately that it is "fighting for its survival" as it sent bulldozers into Jenin.

The leaders of both peoples are in thrall to this icon.  This means they are not leading their people into any bigger picture of the world, any picture where the security of the whole area - perhaps even the security of the planet - is the aim.

4  Tutu: quality of leadership

Speaking at a conference in Boston recently (12 April), Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said he supports the idea of Israel and its right to secure borders.  He also spoke out against suicide bombers and "the corruption of young minds through hatred".but added: "What is not so understandable, not justified, is what (Israel) did to another people to guarantee its existence."

Tutu's seminal role in South Africa's Truth and reconciliation Commission has given him a rare and priceless insight into the need for a different kind of leadership in political and social organisation.

A month ago he said in interview:

One reason we succeeded in South Africa that is missing in the Middle East today is quality of leadership - leaders willing to make unpopular compromises, to go against their own constituencies, because they have the wisdom to see that would ultimately make peace possible.

The whites wanted to dig in their heels and the liberation movement was hell-bent on demanding every pound of flesh through retributive justice akin to the Nuremberg Trial.   Neither leader heeded these calls.

F.W. De Klerk showed remarkable courage in his reforms.  After 27 years in prison, no one could challenge Mandela when he said, "Let us forgive these guys."  Like De Klerk, he acknowledged the humanity and the anguish of his adversary.  Any process of peace is bound to collapse if this is missing.

Tutu also emphasised that both De Klerk and Mandela had to compromise.  He emphasises that in the Middle East Israelis must have sovereign security, but they must abandon their settlements and grant the Palestinians their own state.  (Read more of this interview on the Insights page.)

5  Leadership and forgiveness

Many articles and illustrations on the ForgivenessNet website explore why forgiving, to be a public, transforming action even more than inner healing, is only possible for people who have some degree of power.  Active forgiving is for the powerful to do, precisely because it is an act of giving, and in order to do it you must have something powerful and transformational to give to the other people.

Forgiving is for the powerful to do, precisely because it is an act of giving, and in order to do it you must have something powerful and transformational to give

We sense implicitly that Israel can forbear, can pull back and rely on the international community to pursue the land issue with them and for them.  This does not make the Palestinian suicide bombers any more ‘right’ morally. Neither side is right in their use of murderous force. It just means that we require different qualities from each. Greater compassion and forbearance from Israel; greater patience and answerability from Palestine. 

The brilliant and controversial US rabbi Michael Lerner - a Jewish leader with great sympathy for Palestine - has a strong voice on Middle East peace-making.   Interviewed for San Francisco Weekly in March, he believes the Israelis will not be the first to break away from the region's cycle of murder, since they are much stronger than the Palestinians, due to decades of military support from the US.  He holds that Palestinians have to be the first to practice non-violence.

Yet the Palestinian people long for statehood and the kind of clout it brings.  Non-violence requires an extraordinarily creative leadership, as Gandhi illustrated.  And as Gandhi said, "The weak cannot forgive." 

The present Middle East crisis shows us the enormous truth of this statement quite starkly.  We see it in both Sharon and Arafat.  One relies on organisation to bestow leadership; the other hopes for such organisation to do the same.  They have and they want one kind of leadership, which in a recent ForgivenessNet e-letter in this series we called "passive authority."  

It is the most typical form of leadership in organisations and institutions.   Though its leaders have power to obstruct, to damage, to hurt, to destroy lives, relationships and careers, and indeed to kill, they lack the power to build, to create, to foster and empower.  This is why "organisations" not only cannot forgive, but also cannot - by definition - be forgiven!  (Though their leaders can effect transformation.)

The second kind of leadership, which we called "creative authority," was illustrated unforgettably in South Africa by Mandela, De Clerk, and Tutu.   Strikingly, this kind of leadership wants to forgive ... and has the strength to do so.  To make new beginnings, new opportunities for growth, employment and restoration.  We should all hope for this in the Middle East, and work for it.

If you don't already receive Eli Pariser's invaluable resource "9-11 Peace Bulletin," check out the site at :

Andrew Knock

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