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(photo credit: Jonah Newman)
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Tuesday asked visiting former US president Jimmy Carter for help in arranging the release of abducted IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit.
"You and other leaders need to make an effort at this stage and do everything to release Gilad Schalit," the rabbi told Carter at the meeting in the capital, which also included Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), according to Ynet. "You can influence this."
Carter is on a three-day tour of Israel and the West Bank as part of a group of former statesmen and international dignitaries known as The Elders, started by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to assist in conflict resolution.
The delegation is being led by former Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso, and includes South African Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former Irish president Mary Robinson, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland and Indian human rights activist Ela Bhatt.
On his last visit to Israel in June, Carter received a letter from the Schalit family that he hoped to pass on to Hamas leaders to be given to Gilad Schalit.
A year ago, a letter from the kidnapped soldier was sent to his family via the offices of the Carter Center, the former president's human rights NGO, in Ramallah.
At a press conference earlier on Tuesday, Cardoso said The Elders were not planning on actively involving themselves in the Schalit matter.
"This is a negotiation basically between governments," he said. "Of course in our present capacity we are always hoping that a transaction will take place, but we are not coming here to interfere in the matter."
Cardoso also said now was a "delicate" and "hopeful" time, and that the group's goal was to hear from a wide range of people whose lives have been affected by the conflict.
"We are here to listen, to see, to understand, to be in solidarity with the suffering of people, and to motivate people by saying peace is possible," he said.
Cardoso said the delegates were independent voices who were not tied to the interests of any one country or government.
On Monday evening, Carter accepted a letter from MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) for US President Barack Obama, again taking on the role of mail carrier in Middle East politics.
Tibi wrote to Obama about what he called the "strangulation policy" of the Israeli government against its Arab citizens and asked him to force Israel to apportion the money it receives from the US fairly among its population.
"I respect president Jimmy Carter very much. He is a courageous and sincere man, and if he believes in our case, then I think that we will have a good chance in our fight for dignity," Tibi told The Jerusalem Post.
Though Cardoso trumpeted the group's impartiality, a number of the delegates have expressed strong criticism of Israel in the past, and in turn have received lukewarm support in the Jewish community.
Recently, American Jews rallied against Obama's decision to award Robinson the Medal of Freedom, citing her role as then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference, which was widely seen as dissolving into a forum for anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Tutu, who also received the Medal of Freedom, has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. He said he hopes Israelis will take his concerns and criticism to heart.
"The Hebrew prophets used to criticize and condemn their own people, and some of them heard the message," Tutu told the Post.
Carter, whose 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was attacked for being one-sided against Israel, told the Post that he believes he has been critical of both sides in the conflict, citing his condemnation last year of Palestinian rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
"I'm just looking for peace," he said.
He had words of faint praise for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who he said has "taken some steps forward" in stopping settlement construction and easing West Bank checkpoints to allow for economic development.
On Tuesday morning Carter, Tutu, and the rest of The Elders met with eight young adults who said the dignitaries seemed to embrace their call for the increased involvement of young Israelis and Palestinians in the peace process.
"Mary Robinson said to me that Nelson Mandela told them the first time that they met, 'Listen to the young people,' and she understands that this is really important," Tal Madar, director of the small Ihud Hahaklai (Agricultural Union) youth movement, told the Post after the meeting.
"I think they were really impressed by all the people in the room for their endless optimism and for the fact that they are doing daily work not for themselves but for society," she said.
Adam Werner, 27, who runs the Young Israeli Youth Forum for Cooperation, an NGO that works to involve young professionals in Israeli policy-making, said The Elders' visit was important but any long-term solution needs to come from the Israeli public.
"A lot of the resolutions and propositions that come out are from the international community, and I think that's something we need," Werner said.
"But ultimately it has to come from the grassroots and from Israel, with all its contradictions and difficulties, because otherwise it's just an artificial idea."
Both Madar and Raoof Korabe, an 18-year-old Israeli Arab who was also at the meeting, encouraged The Elders to spend more time during their trip talking with everyday people rather than with politicians and policy-makers.
The delegation is scheduled to meet President Shimon Peres on Wednesday morning before leaving Jerusalem for Ramallah, where they will meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, talk with Palestinian youth and business leaders, and attend an iftar meal with prominent Palestinians to break the day's Ramadan fast.
The Elders are funded by a number of international businesspeople, including Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson, who originally proposed the idea for the group, and eBay founder Jeff Skroll, both of whom are accompanying the delegation here.