Can the reconciliation now taking place in post-genocide Rwanda serve as a model for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
That was the suggestion posited by former President Bill Clinton, who addressed the Dec. 8 kickoff to the 2010 annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia last week.
In a wide-ranging, hourlong speech, Clinton's remarks spanned the globe and the issues that affect it: the economic and social inequalities that divide the rich and the poor; the unsustainability of global warming; the problems associated with health care in the United States and elsewhere.
He rattled off facts and figures about worldwide poverty, jobs and energy systems, and emphasized the interdependence of all peoples as the guiding principle by which he views all problems.
Without explicitly connecting the Rwandan and Israeli-Palestinian issues, he left his audience of some 750 Federation supporters with the distinct impression that Israel and the Palestinians could learn from the Rwandan experience.
He told poignant stories of Rwandans who lost most of their families in 1994, when the Hutu majority perpetrated a genocide largely against the Tutsi minority and their Hutu sympathizers.
These survivors, he said, sought reconciliation, not vengeance. They do this work of reconciliation "with people who killed them and their loved ones because they couldn't get away from each other; it's a little place, and they decided to begin again."
Clinton, who has long been close to Federation president Leonard Barrack, a major financial backer of his presidency, lauded the work of the Federation for its efforts at home and in Israel, and urged it to continue serving those in need.
He spoke of the importance of volunteerism and his own endeavors through his William J. Clinton Foundation to address a multitude of global issues, from expanding the delivery of AIDS drugs to helping coffee growers in Africa.
He cited the relatively recent explosion of nongovernmental organizations around the world as "one of the most hopeful developments of the early 21st century."
There are limits, he said, "to what the private sector can produce and the government can provide."
Into this gap, he said, is stepping the 1.1 million foundations and 355,000 religious institutions that do charitable work in the United States, half of which were started in the past decade.
The Creation of Real Change
As the nonprofit world increasingly works to address difficult issues, the central question that Clinton said must always be considered is this: "How do you propose to turn your good intentions into real changes in other peoples' lives?"
The "how" question "has got to become the obsession of people like you and me who work in nongovernmental groups," he told the rapt audience.
In assessing a particular project or initiative, he said that he always asks himself: "Will this contribute to building up the positive forces or reducing the negative forces of our interdependence? If it will, I'm for it; if it won't, I'm against it."
Clinton mostly steered clear of current U.S. foreign policy, once his passion and now the domain of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the current U.S. secretary of state. He joked that he prefers the current set-up in which dignitaries, upon greeting the couple, now address their foreign-policy concerns to Hillary and ask him about his foundation.
His one comment on foreign policy targeted Afghanistan, saying that he supported President Barack Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops.
"I think the president did about as good as he could," he said.
Speaking from experience, he suggested that there are between one and four decisions a president makes that are "unknowable — when you literally cannot know the consequences of any choice you make.
"All you can ask there is that you have a good person who listens to everybody," he said, and does what he — or, as he quipped, she — thinks is right.
What Obama must do now, Clinton said, "is to be resolute in trying to make it work," and if it doesn't, "he should come back and tell us that."
In the end, Clinton returned to the subject of Israel and Rwanda, where he has focused much energy, in part because he said that he feels guilty that he didn't do something to stop the genocide during his presidency.
Having recently returned from a visit to Israel, where he delivered several lectures, Clinton said that much has changed since his active push for Mideast peace in the middle to late 1990s. He referred to his efforts in 2000 to clinch a final-status deal between the two parties as the time when Israeli premier Ehud Barak said "yes" and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "wouldn't say."
The situation today is "more complicated in Israel," he suggested, citing what he described as a more hard-line population and more settlers living beyond the 1967 borders.
But what hasn't changed, he continued, is the geography — "it's still a very small place" — and the demography — "the Palestinians are still having babies quicker than the Israelis are."
As a result, Clinton asserted, Israel will soon face a decision between being a Jewish state and being a democracy.
Calling himself an unrepentant optimist, he said that while "there are risks in any course," Israel is "not immune from the consequences of what happens around it."
"I still think they ought to make a deal" he said, adding, "I wouldn't be surprised if Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu didn't try to make one."
Israel will survive even without peace, he said, "but what will life be like there? What do you want it to be like there 10, 20, 50 years from now? You have to think about that."
In the end, he told the crowd, the crises of the world could be solved "if we first embrace the interdependence" that is required to find solutions.
Referring to Rwanda, he concluded: "It's shocking that the place that has done it best started with so little. Something happened to them that has to happen to us all."