In the fall of 2014, I sat around a table in the State Department with forty representatives of Israeli and Palestinian civil society and the peace team of then Secretary John Kerry. After failing to get his framework agreement released as the proximity talks between the parties had broken down, we were there to ask why there had been no focus on bottom up peacebuilding during the attempt.
The senior advisors told the room that there was no bandwidth or budget for a focus on civil society efforts, and the team had been laser focused on security arrangements and a $4 billion economic package.
I was thinking of that meeting this weekend when the White House released its economic pitch deck promising $50 billion investments as the economic aspect of the ‘ultimate deal’. Despite Jared Kushner and the whole team claiming they were rejecting failed frameworks, here was another massive-scale infrastructure push, only this time without any input from the Palestinian business community or governing authority. Whereas Kerry had failed while everyone was in the room at a $4 billion push, here the Trump team was attempting a $50 billion push with none of the Palestinian beneficiaries willing to speak to them.
Reading through the pitch deck I was surprised to find faces of people I knew. Here was Robi and Bassam of the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved parents who work toward peace and reconciliation. Khaled, an olive farmer from the incredibly successful Olive Oil without Borders, was plastered over promises of empowering the Palestinian people.
The reason I was surprised to see these faces was that they were all from programs that the Trump administration has cut off over the past 18 months. People were fired, programs were shut down and decades of painstaking work was undercut by a sudden cancelation of contracts. Programs that were actually delivering economic wins for Israelis and Palestinian alike had not just been terminated, but their images were then used as a sales pitch for similar programs with higher price tags and no Palestinian buy-in.
Going through the 94-page brochure, many of the initiatives were ones that USAID was working on before the Trump Administration decided to cut off all funding and downsize the office drastically. Others had come from previous reports and studies of the Quartet and the World Bank. However, while each of the original reports couched the success of these projects’ major political changes, this economic plan has no bearing on the reality of development in the West Bank and Gaza.
The presentation reads as a literature review of all previous economic ideas with added bonuses like $80 million in grants for artists, $100 million for international consultants and $500 million for a new university. There are never unlimited resources but rather than pick and choose the vision seems to throw the kitchen sink, promising $3.3 billion in grants in the first year alone.
Beyond the presentation implementation seems impossible. A regional board of trustees taking over every major economic area of the West Bank and Gaza is foreboding for the political side of the plan that is yet to come. In addition, since the Trump Administration has taken office, Congress, who has always played a significant role in policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has made it extremely hard for the Administration to pay towards any of the plan.
Having signed into law both the Taylor Force Act and the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, the administration has no bilateral options of funding left to them unless there is radical change in behavior of the Palestinian Authority. Failing that, they could not even fund around them given the limitation of funding projects that could benefit the Palestinian Authority under current US law. If they want to create new funding lines, they will need the support of both Houses of Congress, who seem less and less inclined to trust a process where no one knows what the political objective is.
Striving for peace is a relay race rather than a single administration’s triumph and learning from where Secretary Kerry left off the Trump Administration could create bandwidth and budget to ensure that the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians don’t hate each other.
Rather than cutting off the very programs that dealt with hate and incitement and use their images as a sales pitch for $50 billion in imaginary funding, the administration could follow the lead of Chairwomen Nita Lowey, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, Senators Coons, Graham, Kaine and Gardner and get behind the Partnership Fund for Peace Act that was introduced earlier this month. Focused on investing in peacebuilding and joint economic development within the context of preserving a Two-State Solution, it doubles down on the investments that were creating the gradual change that is necessary for the macroeconomic projects to succeed.
The constituencies for peace do not currently exist and offering a mirage of $50 billion will not bridge the incredulity gap that has been created through decades of failure. Peace-building is uncomfortable and hard work. A tin cup and a literature review of what has come before will not cut it.
Israeli elections are fundamentally about parliamentary blocs. Whilst there is some excitement this time around that there could be an alternative to Netanyahu as Prime Minister, the chance of a real change in policy or direction by the Israeli government is stymied by the lack of realistic coalition partners that Benny Gantz, should he win, would be able to attract.
Since the election of Ehud Barak, the centre and Left in Israel has chosen to try and win power without a central pillar of their coalition. When Barak decided that a majority of Israelis was not good enough, but he needed a majority of Jewish Israelis he created a precedent that not only was morally dubious, but strategically disastrous.
Israel’s electoral system accords significant power to small parties. Often driven by fragments of society, these groups can at times play kingmaker. There are two groups who could do this: The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox and the Arab citizens of Israel. Both communities have particular concerns. Both communities represent the poorest of Israel.
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) has received between 5-7 seats and has used their power to ensure hundreds of millions of dollars goes to their schools, and that they hold a monopoly of power on issues key to their base. UTJ have little to say about issues of war and peace and the right has been willing to accept almost any condition to keep them in the coalition.
The Arab Joint list received 13 seats in the last election. On average, the Arab parties generate 11-13 seats despite the fact that their turn out in national elections has been depressed since Barak’s decision to exclude them from government on the basis of their ethnicity.
Arab citizens of Israel are the most pro-peace constituency within the country, constantly voting at 20/30 points higher then Jews on their willingness to compromise and accept the Clinton parameters. Delegitimising their voices is crucial in order for right to stay in power, regardless of who heads the government.
Bibi’s last minute plea in the 2015 elections, that the Arabs were ‘voting in droves’, was the opening shot of a four year effort to ensure that the Arab ‘otherness’ prevented their ability to foster any meaningful link up with the Jewish left.
From the Nation State law to the Nakba law, the aim has been to ensure that the Arab narrative was cast outside the bounds of acceptable discourse and to tar and feather any who would seek to work with them. After the municipal elections when Haifa’s Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem offered Raja Za’atara of the joint list the deputy mayor position, a firestorm ensued, with the Prime Minister and Interior Minister attempting everything in their power to thwart the arrangement.
In the nascent campaign for the 21st Knesset, Bibi has used the specter of Benny Gantz relying on Tibi’s votes to form a government as a tool of delegitimisation. Fear of the Arabs coming to the polls won Bibi the last election; he hopes that playing the race card again will keep him in the top job.
Many I have spoken to over the years point to rightward trends in Israeli society and feel that if you can’t beat those using a narrative of fear, you should instead join them. The theory is that by appealing to Jewish fears of the Arab other, one can win the day against the annexationist right. The left’s idea has been that the desire for a Jewish majority – if wrapped in the rhetoric of fear – can help the separationist center capture right-wing voters who would rather give up land than accept living amongst more Arabs.
If you believed that peace was but an election away, I could perhaps see the strategic logic despite the moral cost. Yet looking at the attitudes of Palestinians and Israelis, and the lack of any discussion of peace or two states in the current election campaign, an agreement is unlikely to be secured during the next Knesset, as none of the necessary pre-requisites are in place, and there are deep levels of hostility and mistrust.
The Arab citizens of Israel could be the link between Israel and the Palestinians, able to sooth the fear and mistrust that decades of failure has generated. In order for them to be able to play that role however, they need to be respected and included.
In municipal partnerships the bonds between the Arab community and the Jewish community are forged, as grassroots engagement builds a shared society from the ground up. This essential work takes time and patience.
We are not there yet.
Despite all the analysis, campaigning and electioneering, the laws of electoral mathematics are unchanged. There is no path to a centre-Left government in Israel without some iteration of a coalition or a supply arrangement with the Arab bloc, something that the right has continued to make impossible in the current reality.
Gantz could win in April, and still be faced with coalition agreements committing him to a situation whereby progress on the peace process is as remote as ever.
If that is to change, a sincere commitment must be made to bring the Arab citizens of Israel into the political equations that determine government formation. According to the latest polls conducted by the Abraham Initiatives, two thirds of the Arab public want to see their representatives sitting in government. That is a base that can and must be built off, if we are ever to see the centre-Left’s return to power.
There were many things that President Donald Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem was not. It was not the start of the apocalypse. It was not the start of a successful political peace strategy. Nor was it earth-shattering in terms of its actual practical effects.
So, what was it? It was an international humiliation for a Palestinian community that believed in negotiations. It was an abdication of the role of sole arbitration by the United States. And it was a reality check for everyone concerned.
The United States, at least for the next three years, will not be able to singlehandedly bring the parties back to the table. Of course, even before this, the reality was that even if negotiations had — by some miracle — restarted, few were confident that the societies or their respective leaders were ready for a credible process.
If the Jerusalem announcement has stopped the fake horizon of talks, what replaces it? What credibly fills the vacuum?
There are many who would like to use this moment to push a pressured or coercive approach — the idea that with more force the decision-making calculation will change and a different outcome will result. Given the extreme violence of the Second Intifada and the structural violence that the occupation brings daily, the evidence does not indicate that what we need is more force. If there were a coercive solution to this problem, it would have happened already.
Coercion is seductive, as it puts all the pressure on the party on the other side of the equation. Supporters of both Israel and Palestine can point to the pressure points they feel are most effective and motivate others to apply pressure there while ignoring the significant challenges within their own communities.
Ignoring the power of coercion within decision-making is a mistake, but so is fetishizing it. If this isn’t the moment for pressure, what is it the time for?
To confront the generational challenge, we need a long-term strategy.
Israeli and Palestinian young people truly mistrust one another. With limited or no interaction with one another, they rely on their media and leadership to inform them about their counterparts. The result has been anything but positive. Annual polls of Israelis and Palestinians show that large majorities believe that the opposing community harbors extreme exclusionist or genocidal views.
To confront the generational challenge that the conflict presents, we need a generational long-term strategy to re-engage the communities — something broader than traditional people-to-people programs. We need an agenda that considers how to create community resilience against violence and develop leaders to create constituencies for peace when a credible political process eventually occurs.
As the executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, I have been pushing for the creation of a multilateral international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace that can help answer the question, “What are we doing to make sure that the next generation does not hate one another?” The need has never been higher.
Beyond the fund, however, we need to move beyond the politics of demographics. For the past few years, more and more voices in the center and left of both Israel and the Jewish Diaspora have been pushing the politics of separation to make their case for peace now. The American-Jewish community funds shared-society programing in Israel while also paying for billboards that bemoan the demographic threat posed by the Arab community. That needs to stop.
This is not a moment for coercion but for laying a solid foundation.
One could make the spurious argument that you can use racism to motivate voters if you believe that peace is just a vote away. It is not. If we are in a generational struggle, then we need to tackle the educational challenges created through ethnic conflict, not exacerbate the worst fears of the populations.
The uncertainty of the moment should lead all of us to return to the basic values and principles that motivate and guide us. There are hundreds of opportunities to invest in values we can all stand behind, whether by investing in the bilingual communities of the Hand in Hand school network, working with youth across Jerusalem’s faith communities with Kids4Peace or supporting agricultural cooperatives with the Near East Foundation.
This is not a moment for coercion but for laying a solid foundation. We should support young people as they build communities that demonstrate that a different future is possible, one of collective humanity and mutual dependence. This is a generational struggle, but one that depends on people themselves rather than the geopolitical currents that are buffeting our global society.
Birthright Israel’s education department recently announced that all providers of its signature 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews must stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs in their programming.
The move has hit a nerve. It has brought out the raw feelings surrounding the funders of the program, those who safeguard the educational content and those who lead the largest segments of the US Jewish community.
Birthright continues to be a crown jewel in the crown of US Diaspora relations. Given Birthright’s prominence, both in terms of costs, impact and cultural significance, it should not come as a surprise that people care deeply about what trip participants are exposed to.
Gil Troy, the chair of Birthright’s educational committee, in his passionate response to Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ press release on the decision which called Birthright “out of touch,” couches the adjustment of the program as a result of evaluative feedback rather than a rejection of the values of shared society:
“We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback… When our Beit Midrash (religious study hall) tanked, we didn’t oppose Jewish learning. When our entrepreneur track sputtered, we didn’t stop celebrating Israel as “start up nation.”
While I’m sure that it was internal evaluations that lead to the adjustment, Israel’s relationship with its minorities is more than a little different from the virtues of the “start-up nation” or the values of Jewish textual learning. While the aim of Birthright is to connect unconnected Jews to themselves, there is an ethical question of whether or not one can ignore the impact the Jewish nation state has on its non-Jewish citizens. To what extent does the efficacy of the Birthright experience trump the ethics of editing Israeli Arabs out of Israeli society?
There are 1.8 million Arab citizens of Israel, a full 21.6% of the population of Israel, according to the latest census data. They are an essential part of the story.
I don’t envy the curriculum authors or the educators on the ground. Birthright participants are not blank slates who soak up whatever they are told. Participants come with their own array of ideas, political assumptions, experiences and backgrounds. Trying to get anything to stick on a 10-day emotional and hormonal visit is extremely hard. Arab citizens of Israel, however, are an essential part of the story of Israel — and how the Jewish majority relates to them is a test of our values on a national level.
Rather than assume that Birthright will forever ignore the complex relationship between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, I do think that they will continue to attempt to find a way to address this issue. The organized Jewish community in the US and UK provide a workable model worth considering.
The Interagency Task Force on Arab Israeli Issues (and its UK equivalent) have for years been bringing together the major forces in the diaspora Jewish community, from federations, to advocacy organizations and funders, to have a deep understanding of the realities of the situation of Israel’s Arab minority. Together, a subgroup created the Social Venture Fund, now run by the Jewish Funders Network, which finds the best and brightest organizations working on these issues and collectively gives to them.
An educational module crafted by these organizations, and adapted for the different types of Birthright trips could provide credible, and at times challenging, programing that the heart of the organizational Jewish community supports. It could provide the follow up bridge for the Birthright alumni to get involved, if they so chose, to access these issues with expert information and giving circle opportunities.
Another option is to connect Birthright groups to programs that are supported by the US government. A little known fact is that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the largest funders of shared society programing in Israel through the office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. Here groups can visit organizations vetted and supported by Uncle Sam, who are working on a range of issues spanning education, employment, sports, technology and environment.
Again the experience would not have to stop when the trip was over, with Birthright alumni being able to convey their experience to their Congressional representatives, having seen first hand what the US is doing in the Israel.
The more taut the relationship between the US Jewish community and the Government of Israel becomes, the greater the friction on the signature program between the two communities. In today’s Israel, coexistence is not an apolitical concept and we would be foolhardy to assume that programs that create a shared society would be entirely uncontroversial.
Yet rather than abandon the hard educational challenge, this crisis can be converted into a showcase of how the U.S., both as a country and a Jewish community, are tackling this complexity in a ways that can both educate and connect the most unconnected among us.
My Opening Remarks
Me on incitement and a culture of peace
Me on the Trump Administration and normalization