Lessons in history of Cyprus for world conflicts of today

I find myself this morning back in Cyprus where I am talking about the work of the Fulbright Commission that did what it could to bridge the divide on this island between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

The 1974 war split the island and now, 50 years on, the scar still runs north to south and is still patrolled by U.N. peace monitors, the longest-running peacekeeping operation under U.N. auspices.

The commission poured millions of dollars into conflict resolution work even when many Greek Cypriots called commission staff and program participants “traitors” for working with “the enemy” and the Turkish Cypriot leader accused the Commission of trying to “brainwash” his people.

Many of the most important scholars in conflict resolution worked in Cyprus through the years, many financed by the commission. One early attempt at finding a path to reconciliation was by the Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman. Dr. Kelman believed that, at the end of the day, the leaders of the societies in conflict must be the ones to make peace. Only they had the legitimacy.

However, he also thought it useful to work with what he called “pre-influentials” — young professionals or graduate students who were on the cusp of assuming leadership roles in their societies.

The Fulbright Commission pursued this route by mandating that its grantees participate with students from the other community in conflict resolution seminars and the commission sent groups of Greek and Turkish Cypriot 16-year-olds to summer camps in the U.S.

One of the trainers described the first camp and how scared the kids were because they were going to be thrown together with these “dirty murderers” and in the early days tensions were high. Within a week, they were friends, which reflect their ages. Older participants in these programs did not turn so easily.

Such programs bringing together Israeli and Palestinian young people have existed for decades. Seeds of Peace is perhaps the most well known and it started in 1994 when it brought together 46 Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian young people.

I thought about this as I read about the continuing protests by university students that have now spread around the world. As I wrote last fall, the universities that have been able to turn the war in Gaza into a teachable moment deserve praise. Those that have allowed the most extreme voices to run amok have a great deal of work to do.

It seems to me that if American universities really want to make a long-term contribution to ending the conflict in Gaza, they might invite groups of Israeli and Palestinian “pre-influentials” to America (all expenses paid — perhaps with donations from the companies the protesters have targeted) to gather in a less “fraught” environment where reasoned discussion might, might take place.

American students would learn a lot by listening to their stories.

When Cypriots first started meeting, a lot of anger had to come out first, but eventually things got to the point where one could focus on the future.

The late conflict-resolution scholar Dr. Louise Diamond called this “multi-track diplomacy.” Everyone — leaders, media, business owners, academics, religious leaders — has a role to play in pursuing peace. Getting everyone pointed in the same direction is the challenge.

Earlier this week there was an editorial cartoon on these pages showing a woman holding a protest sign that supported the Palestinians (but not Hamas) and the Israelis (but not Netanyahu) and so on. How about a shorter, punchier sign:

Power to the peacemakers.

• Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86. His new book “American Dreams: The Story of the Cyprus Fulbright Commission” is available from

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