The Peace Process

4 minute read

Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2002Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday — 24 years late. The former U.S. President should have been a laureate in 1978, when he brokered the Camp David accords with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. But the Egyptian and Israeli leaders shared that year’s award, while Carter was left out for the most mundane of reasons, says Geir Lundestad, secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. “Nobody nominated him in time.”

This isn’t the first year Carter’s nomination arrived promptly. But in selecting him now, the Nobel panel made an unambiguous statement: as the 43rd U.S. President edges toward war, the committee pointedly embraced the 39th, whose post-White House career has been all about conflict resolution and prevention. The official citation made only a veiled reference to George W. Bush: “In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles” of mediation and cooperation. But in case anybody missed the point, chairman Gunnar Berge elaborated: “This must be read as criticism of the present U.S. Administration.”

Berge’s sharp words — first at the Nobel press conference, then in an interview with Time at the Nobel Institution’s 19th-century mansion in Oslo — provoked rare public rebukes from his startled colleagues, who, in keeping with the committee’s low- profile style, did not attend the announcement. Inger-Marie Ytterhorn said that Berge’s interpretation didn’t reflect the whole panel’s, while Hanna Kvanmo denied that the subject even came up at the oval Art Nouveau table where the committee holds all its meetings. Maybe the problem was less what Berge said than that he spoke out at all, breaking with the custom of letting the citation do the work. During a talk with Time in the book-lined study of his Oslo home, deputy chairman Gunnar Stlsett said the painstakingly chosen words “contain clues to our motivation and philosophy. One should read every nuance of our statement very carefully.”

Whatever the members did or didn’t talk about in secret, the world is not meant to know. The members aren’t supposed to discuss internal disputes, nor do they talk about the also-rans, so there’s no telling how close any of the 155 other nominees came to denying Carter the prize yet again. This year’s eligible nominees — a record 39 groups and 117 individuals put forward by eligible electors, such as past laureates and members of national legislatures — included the Red Cross, Rudolph Giuliani and, yes, President Bush. Shortly after the Feb. 1 deadline for submissions, the members met to sift through the nominations. By the end of this first session, only about two dozen candidates were still in play. They cut more names in April, and by the third meeting, in June, five or six contenders remained. Favorites often emerge by September, but the winner is never nailed down until the last session; this year, on Oct. 3, the panel took just an hour and a half to reach a consensus. Carter’s chances, already strong because of his work both during and after his presidency, were boosted by Bush’s rhetoric on Iraq. Adding the committee’s voice to the ongoing debate was a risk, Berge says, but one worth taking: “Carter represents mediators as a way of resolving conflict.”

Despite criticism of Berge’s candor, the committee has always been part of, not above, the political fray. The Prize, says Lundestad, “is a loudspeaker and a microphone” that has been used to bless peacemakers and to boost their causes — equality in South Africa, freedom in Burma, independence in East Timor. “One cannot say, ‘Here’s an important process, let’s find a name,'” says Stlsett, who is also the Bishop of Oslo. “But it’s a bonus if we can send a message.”

That done, the members can look forward to their next important gathering: on Dec. 9, the night before Carter receives his medal from King Harald, he will dine with the committee at the Grand Hotel. The Little Dinner, as it’s called, is a chance “for a face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk,” says Stlsett. “The laureate knows he has our respect — so it’s fun.” The most memorable Little Dinner was in 1994, when Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin broke bread together. They talked “like old friends,” recalls Lundestad, “about Jerusalem, block by block, who lived where, about the city’s past, about its present situation.”

What Carter will say at his Little Dinner is anyone’s guess. But he may have some thoughts on patience and how prizes come to those who wait.

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