'We call it Wikipeace'

A recently launched Web site that sees the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its primary goals.

Inan age of celebrity tweets and "Jersey Shore" clips that go viral onYouTube, it's easy to forget that social media can actually have -well, some social value.

Asocial good no less ambitious than global peacemaking stands at thecenter of one new venture: the Spirit Initiative, a recently launchedWeb site that sees the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of itsprimary goals.

Founded by Gal Bar Dea, an Israeli MBA student at ColumbiaUniversity, the Spirit Initiative went on-line in the fall, and seeksto apply the technical savvy of young thinkers to some of the world'soldest and most destructive conflicts. Developed and produced by a teamof students and young professionals in New York City, the Web siterepresents an unconventional combination of blogging, Wikipedia andold-fashioned international diplomacy.

"We'retrying to minimize limitations and boundaries," Bar Dea says of theproject's emphasis on Web 2.0 technology. "The whole notion is to allowthe crowd to lead the way, to work together to create the buildingblocks for peace."

Though still several months away from fully realizing Bar Dea'son-line vision, the Spirit Initiative took a vital step forward at theend of December, receiving 30 peace plans from students at universitiesaround the world, including in India, Israel, Ghana and Brazil. Ofthose proposals, 10 submissions focus on Israel and the Palestinians,while the rest look at two additional hot spots the initiative hasadopted: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and internalwarfare in Colombia, where the government has battled the FARC, aguerrilla group, for decades.

"Westarted by looking at many conflicts around the world," says Bar Dea, a30-year-old IDF veteran who grew up in a small town between Haifa andTel Aviv. "When we started looking at the details, we decided it wasbetter to focus in the beginning on three conflicts, so that we cangather knowledge on specific areas and possible resolutions."

Initially inspired by Bar Dea's efforts to meet Columbiaclassmates from the Arab world, the Spirit Initiative now runs on theefforts of 25 core volunteers, many of them fellow students at thebusiness school, or at SIPA, the School of International and PublicAffairs. Other volunteers are young people already in the businessworld.

With zero overhead costs and no official workspace, theorganization resembles a start-up, Bar Dea says, with volunteerscollaborating on-line and, when they meet in person, doing so at schoolfacilities and other public spaces. One set of volunteers spent thefall conducting outreach efforts targeting 50 other universities aroundthe world, inviting teams of students to submit outlines of the peaceplans that were collected in December.

"The criterion is that the plans should be narrow and focused,"says Bar Dea, who worked for three years as a corporate account managerin Tel Aviv before arriving at Columbia. "They need to be'executionable' - to focus on one aspect [of the conflict] and besomething that can be put into action."

DESPITE ITS start-up status, the Spirit Initiative has alreadywon backing from SIPA and Columbia's business school, placing facultymembers on its advisory board and winning support from the Departmentof Public Information at the UN. The organization is currentlyreviewing the 30 peace proposals it received in December, with plans tobring the creators of the top submissions to New York for a conferenceat the UN in April.

"The ideas are really all over the place, but fascinating,"says Bar Dea, now engaged in efforts to raise $70,000 for the summit.

Regarding ideas focused on the Middle East, "some talk abouteconomic development, education or checkpoints in the West Bank.There's one interesting plan about water resources - how to divide themin case there is a peace negotiation between Israel and Syria."

While the UN conference will represent a major milestone fororganizers, the meeting is not itself the final destination. Followingthe conference, the Spirit Initiative plans to transition into perhapsits most important phase, posting the peace proposals on theorganization's Web site (spiritinitiative.org), where individuals fromaround the world can collaborate on efforts to improve the ideas. Theplan is based on the "open source" model of on-line cooperation, inwhich users can combine efforts on a project with little in commonbeyond an Internet connection.

"We call it Wikipeace," Bar Dea says.Applied to conflictsthat have frustrated diplomats for decades, social media represent anew and potentially game-changing variable, Bar Dea continues.

"I think the situation is stuck," he says, referring to thestalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. "I think it has to go to ageneration that is more global, has more access to new ideas and waysto communicate. Just the fact that I have 600 friends on Facebook, andprobably 20 or 30 are Lebanese or Syrian, lets me be more open-minded.

"I'm able to talk with a friend in Egypt on Skype. To my father, a guy who fought against Egyptians, this is a miracle."

Technological innovations aside, it's clear that somepre-Internet barriers remain. Although some Arab students - and oneambassador - have expressed interest in the project, Bar Dea's MiddleEastern counterparts have mostly declined to get involved, beyondsharing contacts back home.

Already sounding like a polished diplomat, the business studentwrites off their reluctance, attributing it to "underlying currents"that simply "take time to dismantle."

"But," he says, "I go to them for advice, forfeedback, and that has been very helpful. Right now they're more on theouter layer, but we're hoping to bring [them] into the project byApril." Despite his graduation from Columbia the following month, BarDea hopes the Spirit Initiative will continue to grow in the yearsahead.

"Ihope this thing will turn into a social movement, that it's not justanother conference or project," he says. "We're working very hard tomake a network of students all over the world working on peace plans.

"On a personal level, I'm hoping to see one amazing idea on theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe it's a little selfish, but I'mhoping that one will be picked up and turned into an internationalpeace plan - one that can improve my life."