Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Elie Wiesel Sounds the Alarm Regarding Iran

Ferderick Kempe, The Wall Street Journal:
Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel has a simple motive behind the stepped-up pace of his already furious work: foreboding. The world's best-known Holocaust survivor senses, at age 77, a pivotal historic moment, one that poses some of the greatest dangers since Nazi Germany.

The shift began "with the ultimate new weapon," he says, suicide terrorists deployed globally on behalf of religious fanaticism and without qualms about mass casualties. In his view, it has taken state form with an Iranian president who supports terrorism and is bent on developing nuclear weapons and exterminating Israel.

Though the official program doesn't mention Iran (in deference to its Jordanian hosts), the laureates also will consider a mission to Iran in conjunction with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to explore ways to pull Tehran from the nuclear brink. Though Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not heed the Nobel winners' advice, Mr. Wiesel says, he is unlikely to refuse a meeting. READ MORE

The Petra meeting also will provide the stage for "very high-level exchanges" of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The hope is to bypass the newly elected Hamas government, whose charter calls for destroying Israel, through tapping grassroots interest in peace. "We are encouraging pragmatic moderation by going after domestic constituents," says David L. Phillips, executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which is co-hosting the conference with the King Abdullah II Fund for Development. While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert will attend, it remains to be seen whether the two will hold face-to-face discussions.

Mideast history is littered with well-meaning peacemakers. Yet Mr. Wiesel says with a laugh that although he expects to do no more than "move matters forward by inches," he abandoned defeatism in Auschwitz and cast cynicism aside when he quit his postwar journalism career in France and began life as a novelist, philosopher, teacher and political activist.

Whatever the laureates achieve over time, the Petra meeting is another landmark in Mr. Wiesel's extraordinarily life of drawing purpose from the tragedy of losing his father, mother and sisters in the Holocaust. "Suffering confers no privileges," he says. "It's what you do with it."

Mr. Wiesel, for example, was perhaps the most important voice in converting former Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pursue peace with Palestinians. He and the lifelong hawk talked, Mr. Wiesel says, of how history has proven that men of the political right are often best at implementing policies of the left: former U.S. President Richard Nixon reaching out to China; Menachem Begin making peace with Anwar Sadat.

What drives Mr. Wiesel now is less a conviction he can change the world than the survivor's certainty that he must try. In that, he follows the lesson of the character Moishe the Beadle in his best-selling memoir "Night." His family in the Transylvanian town of Sighet might have escaped death had they listened to Moishe, who in 1942 warned of what was coming because he had witnessed and then escaped the Gestapo execution of Jewish prisoners after they had dug their own graves. Mr. Wiesel is sounding a similar alarm about Tehran.

"The regime in Iran is the epitome of what we consider to be evil," he says. "Military intervention must remain the last option, but it cannot be excluded. If all else fails, the president of Iran must be prevented from attaining nuclear weapons. He is sick, mentally ill. He is the No. 1 Holocaust denier."

Beyond considering the mission to Iran, the laureates will discuss how else they can support the International Atomic Energy Agency's package of Multilateral Nuclear Approaches, aimed at enhancing nonproliferation by developing international supply guarantees, with the IAEA acting as supply guarantor. Beyond that, the U.N.'s secretary-general and Mr. Wiesel's foundation are in discussions about creating an Advisory Group of Nobel Laureates to support a new Peacebuilding Commission to assist war-ravaged countries during postconflict phases.

None of this may alter history, but Mr. Wiesel's point is to ensure that leaders don't overlook the pivotal moment. "The 20th century was marked by two totalitarian ideologies: political fanaticism in Moscow and racist fanaticism in Berlin," he says. "Now we face a third fanaticism, religious fanaticism, which dominated the Middle Ages but is back and growing."

Mr. Wiesel, like Moishe the Beadle, only hopes more people listen.

Write to Frederick Kempe at Thinkingglobal@wsj.com with your thoughts.