Is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other?

This piece is coauthored with Sarah Yerkes and was published by Brookings on Jan 4th

 Much has been written about Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while most of the analysis has focused on whether the speech was too harsh on Israel or how well Kerry defended the U.S. abstention in the United Nations, one theme of the speech has been overlooked: the idea that the two-state solution’s cause of death is not likely to be settlements or incitement, but rather the total lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. As Kerry said:

“In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.”

That line is important for multiple reasons. First, it underscores that the belief gap between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today is so wide that even if they agree completely on all of the final status issues—borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements—they are incapable of making a deal. Second, the leaders on both sides will never take the necessary risks for an agreement without overwhelming public support. That is, while public trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and lasting peace, it is a necessary one. And third, the innovation that is needed to get to a deal is not finding ever-new bridging formulas on the final status issues, of which the Kerry principles are just the latest iteration, but rather a focus on how to start traversing the incredulity gap that divides the people.

Mind the gap

Secretary Kerry is correct that nothing expands the belief gap more than continued settlement building on the Israeli side and glorification of violence on the Palestinian side. The crux of the quest for peace has been the concept of land for peace, and both parties seem incapable of giving the other side what they need to believe. Israelis may talk a good game, but Netanyahu’s statements about his willingness to negotiate land fall on deaf ears while settlement outposts continue to grow. The Palestinian security cooperation might keep the worst of the violence off the streets of Israel, but no level of coordination will be enough while stabbers and shooters of Israeli civilians are lionized by Fatah and monuments are dedicated to them.

Building trust between the populations requires different strategies than those for building track-one negotiations. It requires a systematic outreach approach to civil society, both in attention and, when appropriate, funding. At best, the U.S. government, alongside the other interested nations, aided civil society work in episodic bursts. At worst, they saw it as irrelevant while negotiations were ongoing.

We have both worked for years—one of us within the U.S. government, the other with Israeli, Palestinian, and American NGOs—to make the case that any peace process will fail without public support. Thus, we agree with Kerry’s comments that focusing solely on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and ignoring the people will only perpetuate this situation of total distrust. Yet it is frustrating that it took Kerry four years to understand this point.

To be clear, the civil society track is an “and” rather than an “or.” It buttresses other strategies and enables their successes, rather than stands alone. While it is not sufficient, it is necessary for any initiative to be successful.

Unlike settlements and incitement, which are driven far more by Israeli and Palestinian domestic considerations than international policy, engagement with the Israeli and Palestinian publics is one area where the U.S. negotiating team could have played a positive and effective role. Had Secretary Kerry realized in 2012 the importance of encouraging the public to push their leaders to stay at the negotiating table, he would have likely invested more time and money in supporting the efforts of civil society groups dedicated to preserving the two-state solution. Instead, the State Department largely ignored civil society, remaining laser-focused on the top leaders.

There is one important exception to this point. The U.S. government has repeatedly and strongly defended Israeli civil society in the face of an increasing attack by the Israeli government. During Kerry’s tenure as Secretary, the United States forcefully pushed back against different iterations of a harsh NGO law that particularly targeted foreign funding of human rights organizations.

However, during the 2013-2014 negotiations, Kerry made over three dozen trips to Israel and the West Bank. Yet despite the millions of miles flown and the tremendous amount of time that the secretary spent in the region, he never found a moment to meet with civil society. These were the groups, the people, whose expectations were raised when President Obama said in his 2013 speech in Jerusalem:

“And let me say this as a politician—I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Civil societies were expected to market the negotiations to their skeptical people, knowing that their governments were pouring cold water on them. Throughout the 14 months of negotiations, no senior member of the negotiating team held a town hall or public meeting with those who were expected to sell the process—either to hear their concerns or to give them the necessary boost to build domestic support for their efforts. And while there were some private attempts at outreach to civil society, they were insufficient and lacked the necessary high-level support to move the dial. When even the negotiators don’t take the efforts of those supporting them seriously, it is hard for them to be taken seriously within their own societies and by their own leadership.

Throughout the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $10 million a year in funding reconciliation programs between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. Not once did this line item make it into the Obama administration’s budget. Each year it was added to the federal budget after considerable effort on the congressional level in an ever-more difficult fiscal environment. When compared to how much the United States spends on military assistance to Israel and paying down the debts of the Palestinian Authority, it is a fraction of the resource to something that the administration only now recognizes as the underlying foundation to move forward.

Ball in Trump’s court

The next administration, whose dedication to the two-state solution is questionable, might look for some out-of-the-box ideas to try and unstick the parties and move the situation to a more stable setting. If we have any advice for them it is this, it starts with hope and change. It might seem odd that the Obama slogan needs to the be organizing philosophy for their approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but without hope, the parties will never move beyond their retrenchment. The key to hope is change, that the status quo can be different, that people do have agency.

To help each society recognize this potential, all the tools in the foreign policy toolkit must be used, including working with civil society groups. That’s essential for delivering that message and demonstrating to skeptical people that we are in a new era with new opportunities.

This should include:

  • Senior level advisors, including the new advisor for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, meeting with not just the parties, but civil society groups privately as well publically;
  • Inclusion of the USAID people-to-people reconciliation grant program into the federal budget; and
  • Leveraging U.S. dollars off those of the rest of the international community in the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which currently enjoys bipartisan support, that can provide the necessary bandwidth and budget for a systemic approach to the trust deficit.

We are glad Secretary Kerry understands how important it is to establish trust and confidence among the leaders in order to preserving the two-state solution. And we are glad he made a strong case for why the Israeli and Palestinian people must push their leaders to take political risks.

With the Paris peace conference on the horizon, a new U.S. administration being sworn in, and the parties jockeying for position in the new environment we hope that the lessons that took four years for Secretary Kerry to learn can be remembered and reflected on as seriously as the principles that he presented.

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Why US Liberals have a head start on the fight back

This article appeared in the Forward 

As the endless autopsies of the 2016 election continue to pour in, what is clear is that the left needs a new organizing message. Luigi Zingales warns us against attacking Trump in order to focus on his policies, and Mark Lilla decries the end of identity politics for the progressive movement, but what is the foundational message that can serve as the cornerstone of the liberal comeback?

As a newcomer to America, it appears obvious to me that American liberals have an inbuilt advantage over their European counterparts. As a born and bred British citizen, I remember well the debates that Gordon Brown faced when trying to define British values. Coming in after the failure of the multiculturalism, a tactic that did not seem to create a cohesive society, Prime Minister Brown decided to call for community cohesion. What the community was supposed to unify toward became a national conversation about what British values are today.

America does not suffer from this problem. The civic-nationalism that is America’s founding creed, and its populace of hyphenated identities, allows for an inclusive patriotism accessible to all. The Irish-American, Jewish-American, African-American and Muslim-American can look to the second part of their hyphen and see a commonality. The Constitution and Bill of Rights lay out a doctrine that is fundamentally inclusive. The universal nature of the American experiment, its civil religion, is the core of American exceptionalism. What makes America the shining city on the hill is its openness to all those striving toward the values to which we all hold dear.

These values are what allowed Hamilton, the musical, to be beloved by Vice-President Dick Cheney and President Obama. It is what enabled Captain Humayan Khan to serve the nation. It is the centerpiece of America’s soft power around the world.

In the most recent election, Donald Trump’s campaign carefully turned American patriotism into nationalism. For most, it was economic nationalism, for others, it was white nationalism. In each case it was a zero sum game- if you were not gaining, it was the fault of an “other”. Those “others” could be the countries, like China and Mexico, that Trump says saw us as an easy mark. But they could be American immigrants and minorities that some felt received unfair help from the Federal government, enabling them to leapfrog “real Americans” in social advancement. The rallying cry was America First, and he convinced his voters that they were the real America; the “others”, including other Americans, were responsible for keeping them down.

The key to gaining back the narrative is to reclaim the patriotic mantel. Baked into our social values is a pride in being American. There is a reason why E pluribus unum has been the unofficial motto of the United States.

Democrats searching for an organizing philosophy that can rebuild the party, from the local to the federal level, do not need to start from scratch. The American base setting is one of optimism. It is one of faith, service and the belief that anyone can rise to the top. If a Trump administration aims to turn Americans against each other in a national Apprentice competition, Democrats can rebuild through an appeal to civic service and belief in community.

This does mean a reorientation. We must move away from messages implying that the state has the only answer to inequality. American fear of the federal government goes back to the founding of the nation. A return to communal resilience and a re-creation of social capital can be the fertile ground where red districts become purple or even blue. Promoting programs in the community, dealing with common problems, and linking those left behind by globalization can be a far more effective than speaking about tax credits.

We also need to find ways to link communities of faith around common service projects. As the evangelical community, which overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Trump, continues to define their political identity in these changing times, where public morality is no longer their touchstone, the left should try engaging with them in service projects that link black and white churches, multi-faith projects and those that serve the poor. Not only will these provide new avenues to help bridge cultural divides, but they will also provide opportunities to campaign on common causes and enable a less partisan divide.

Finally, and this has been written before, we must concentrate on what we share as a nation, rather than the identities that divide us. We cannot and should not descend into demography and think that it ensures a democratic future. The hard fought wins for communities of color and others who have been historically discriminated against must never be given up. But we must be for more than just battles for minority groups. The American values that immigrant groups accept so proudly should give the native population a great comfort. It’s those values, and the proponents of them, that are the best messengers to a socially anxious population. Whether the Islamic gold star family or the job-creating first generation immigrant CEO, these are the leaders that can reframe the debate away from a narrow nationalism and towards a civic patriotism.

2016 in general has shaken liberals the world over to our core. Being a new immigrant to America, I truly believe that we have a head start that no liberal democratic party has. We have as a nation agreed upon what our shared values are. We now just need to live up to them.

Tribal classrooms lead to a tribal society

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 12/15/16

Israel’s population is a mishmash of Jewish communities from around the globe with a healthy dash of the local Arab population. Like any society, Israel struggles to find a way to create a healthy shared society between the disparate parts of the community that came to the land with their own customs, cultures, emotional baggage and expectations.

The conflicting nature of the tribes of Israel- the secular, the national religious, the ultra-orthodox and the Arabs- has best been captured by President Rivlin who has made his presidency about promoting true community cohesion and anti-racism.

In most societies, the place where a sense of civic identity is created is in the public school system. Coming from different backgrounds, the children of a nation are socialized together learning common themes and values, helping to overcome the differences that make up part of their home life.

In Israel however, the segmented nature of the education system means that public schooling is the foundation of the walls between the tribes, rather than the melting pot to mix them up. Israel has separate tracks for secular, religious, Arab and ultra-orthodox education. Though the Education Ministry is the second largest government department (after defense), the Minister finds it hard to affect the classrooms of children not from his constituency. Just ask Minister Bennett about the teaching of english and mathematics in the Ultra-Orthodox schools at the moment.

The divided nature of the school system means that there is no place where Israelis from different religious, and in some cases ethnic, backgrounds meet one another. Instead, the fulcrum of civic patriotism moves from the classroom to the battlefield with universal conscription being the birthplace of a unified society.

There are two obvious problems however. First, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens don’t serve in the military, meaning that they miss the access point to civic-national identity that bonds the nation across socio-economic, religious and ethnic boundaries. Second, unlike the classroom, where free expression and critical thought are the backbone of educational instruction, the Army is a place for order, authority and militarism. The national values of Israeli society are not coming from the public school, but from the IDF, which further divides society within the context of the ongoing conflict.

The exclusionary nature of conscription within an ever-diversifying state of Israel means that citizens are finding less and less common cause with one another. The divided nature of public education leads to a social anxiety for each segment, each believing themselves a minority within a system where the other tribes have advantages or are burdens upon them.

There are some phenomenal efforts to try and mitigate the worst aspects of the systemic educational separation. Groups like Givat Haviva try and ensure that pupils from the different schools meet, the Abraham Fund ensures that each school sector prioritizes the others’ language, Merchavim look to place Arab teachers in Jewish schools. The biggest challenge to the separation of the schooling system is the Hand in Hand school system, whose national network of seven schools looks to create a true bilingual environment for its students.

Yet despite these efforts, the root cause of the continuation of the tribes of Israel are the divided schools of Israel. As Israel becomes more religious and more Arab each passing year, how much longer can the divided school system prop up a society with such deep fissures within it?

As Israeli patriots like President Rivlin look to try and create a truly integrated, inclusive society, a radical idea might be to start re-examining the anachronistic nature of public education in Israel, find ways to try and change it root and branch.

We will never find our synthesis

Times of Israel 12/9/16

Of all the wrap-ups of the 2016 US Presidential election, Prof. Yehuda Mirsky’s essay on ‘the new Jewish Question’ has had the most profound impact on me. In a sweeping historical overview, Professor Mirsky comments how the new global populist waves bring Jews back into the passion plays of the right and the left. The tension between Jews as a particularist tribe and Judaism as a universalist creed gives both liberal democrats and ethnic populists something to admire and something to attack.

Mirsky’s diagnosis leaves no instruction other then to safeguard the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of worship and utilize them to help create the new intellectual underpinnings for global politics.

Reading through his essay, I was struck by the systemic view with which he perceives the Jewish people. Here is a tribe, a particular people with familiar links- the Jews. The Jews, however have a universalist mission, Judaism. Jewish values are not distinct to Jews, it is in fact the Jewish mission to bring our values to the world. What we are is a particular delivery system for a universalist message.

That contradiction is what is motivating so much of the Jewish communal angst on so many different levels. For the majority of American Jewry, the liberal Jews who form a key part of the Democratic party, Tikkun Olam is the guiding philosophy. Social justice, repairing the world, the expression of Jewish values writ large, is what we are about. What happens in the shul is less important than the work we do outside of it. It is no surprise that Zionism, the ultimate expression of the Jewish people as a tribe, is causing such heart ache with liberal Jewish America, that is struggling to come to terms with the particularism that liberal nationalism demands.

While the world outside the synagogue walls motivates the majority of US Jews, to the minority that voted for the Republicans it was overwhelmingly the world inside the Shul that mattered. The strong bonds of community, faith and tribe, the particularism of Jews and the needs of Jews as a people link this community far closer to the mindset of the Jews of Israel, where the particularist part of their identity shares more in common with the global populist wave.

While the polices of the government of Israel and the US might make up the foreground of the rifts within the global Jewish community, the background is the tectonic shifts and tensions between our universalist and particularist identities. The unending controversy of ‘who is a Jew’ alongside practice of reform Judaism within the State of Israel is part of the challenging of the paricularist shibboliths that are the bedrock of the tribal leaders of Israeli Jewry.

Reflecting on Mirsky’s writing, I was struck how the oscillation he described resembles a similar struggle that the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) described in his seminal book, ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The Rav describes man as both majestic and covenantal. Majestic man is a master of the universe, imposing his knowledge, culture and technology on the world. Covenantal man feels alienation and seeks companionship to relieve him of the existential alienation of creation. The Rav famously describes how we oscillate between these two halves, both being an essential part of the human condition, but that we should not expect to find a synthesis between these two poles.

Looking at Mirsky’s essay I can see how our universalist mission can run alongside the majestic man of faith, global in scope self assured in its value to all. It is also easy to see how our particular instincts fall into the covenantal man, that the world is lonely, and that we seek comfort with others and with G-d as we go about our mission.

For the Rav. the Jews are a covenantal community that tries to bridge both parts of the human condition in their day in and day out activities. Neither aspect of the man of faith is superior. In Mirsky’s categorization, neither our universal values of Judaism nor our particular tribe as Jews takes precedence. Our job is to struggle between them.

In an uncertain world, one in which the political right and left will have their fetishes around Jews, our task is to carefully traverse the complexities of universal values as a particular people. If we manage to do this, without tearing ourselves to pieces, we will continue to be a light onto the nations as the world struggles to find its way forward.

Descent into demography

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 11/24/16

2016 has been a hard year for liberals and progressives around the Western world, but the election of Donald Trump, and the racist Alt-Right that have ridden in on his coattails, is the capstone on a year many of us would rather forget.

This election was not about common ground. It was not about compromises or progress. It was screaming “stop.” Stop to the rising healthcare premiums, stop to the disappearing jobs, stop to the changing demographic face of America, stop to social change that many found disconcerting.

It was a fearful cry.

One of the key characteristics of the Trump voter is social anxiety. Will their kids be as stable as they were in the country of their birth? Will newcomers get fasttracked to the middle class? Will someone listen to them if they are not a minority? Trump won because low-propensity white voters turned out in historic numbers in swing states, and the multiethnic Democratic coalition did not. America’s changing demographic face led Trump to campaign that “this would be the last election” in which a Republican would stand a chance, as amnesty for illegal immigrants would ensure a locked-in Democrat majority.

Demographic fears are something that should be familiar to Israeli voters. The now infamous statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Arabs voting in “droves” turned out his base to vote for the Likud in 2015. When given the choice between a prime minister that many might have issues with and a threatening demographic situation, Israeli Jews voted ethnicity first for fear of the others coming to get them.

It is not just the Right that has used demography in political campaigns in Israel.

Still today, many in the Center and the Left call for a two-state solution based on the demographic futures that they fear, and believe that this strategy will win over voters to their cause. This strategy has failed for the past decade and continues to create further obstacles to the political possibilities of the Arab parties in the Knesset needed to support a Center-Left coalition, something essential if the Center-Left ever wishes to form a government.

The descent into demography, to looking at someone’s racial identity as political destiny, is a challenging phenomenon for liberal democracies. If racial minorities are seen as demographic threats, every interaction with the minority is threatening and every child born is seen as another solider in the battle for supremacy.

This type of social anxiety is difficult to combat. It assumes a zero-sum game where if one group is succeeding, another by definition must be losing.

It can’t be that the progressive communities answer this social anxiety by giving up on hard-fought wins for marginalized communities. If coming together and listening to each other is just a form of surrender of one community to the other, then the zero-sum game continues and the societal divisions are exacerbated.

Rather than just attempting purposeless dialogue, we need to seek out shared projects where each community has a stake in the success of the outcome. If our communities are hopelessly divided, we need to find the activities that can bond them and help deal with the fear of the other that is fueling so much of the anxiety that hit a boiling point in this past election in America.

The former UK chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has written about a “home we build together” – the joint work of different groups in building shared institutions that form the backbone of a cohesive society.

In both America and in Israel, building inclusive projects, ones that have stakeholders from across the diverse communities that make up each society, are the foundation to realizing the equality that is promised in both Israel and America’s founding statements.

As the Left in both countries tries to examine their path forward, issues rather than demographics should be the rallying cry. Defending hard-won principles while finding common cause across people of different identity is the challenging but true path back to leadership.

If you are going to freak out – do it from informed position

So I posted this on Facebook but thought I would put it up here as well. Big thanks to Steve Schale the guru of Florida and Jon Ralston the guru of Nevada and Harry Enten of 538.

So for Brit friends who are freaking out over US election – I’ve done deep dive over past few days and some data points to keep in mind.

1) 538 odds are so different as they take into account systemic poll failure – so if polls are off in one state they are off in all states by same amount. Despite this every model has Clinton up across the board. If the NV EV is correct (see below) and the affect is systemic failure across the board in polling in every state, Clinton chances jump to 88%. If it is localized she gets a 2.8% bump.

2) With laws changing early voting (EV) is through the roof with perhaps as many as 40% of the vote in before Tuesday. In NV it appears the Dems has built a HUGE firewall that is impossible for GOP to overcome so can add that to HRC column. In addition CO EV 70% is in and things look good.

3) In FL the EV shows both sides neck and neck but record turnout from Hispanics who are making up 15% of electorate (up from 9% in 12). African Americans are at around 12.5% which means the FL electorate is less white then ever. It’s still tight but in the demographic charts far better to be Clinton then trump ATM. It appears that Miami-Dade county is 67% higher in turn out in EV then 2012. If they break for Clinton in same margin as they did for Obama – could be a blue wall of over 200k voters to run up the score. There is a chance that Miami-Dade could be the Clark County of Florida and the Hispanic vote could end the Trump run there.

4) The reason Clinton is finishing in Michigan and PA is because no early voting there. She is up 3-5 points but could be tight so makes sense to push there. She has built huge machines there and unlike in 08 when McCain pulled out of MI with four weeks to go or 12 when the auto bailout made it a lock for Obama it was always going to be tight. Trump decision to go to NV or weirder to Minnesota (to the most liberal district in the country) with 48 hours to go is bonkers.

None of this means it’s in the bag but taking NV off the table the Trump map gets harder and EV demographic data shows some good signs for Clinton in FL. Finally remember that even in states that Trump is ahead (OH, IA) he has to win, Clinton can afford to lose those. Trump has to have a perfect night, win every toss up and turn a big blue state – its a v hard thing to do.

The fact that he is on the ballot is already too close to be complacent but the one thing HRC does is plan and execute. So if you need to freak out so so from informed position (1 in 3 or 1 in 10 it’s still a chance) and know that we should have a clear picture early on if this is a blow out or will go to wire given the EV this year. As Sunday comes to close the polling averages shows a 3 point election for HRC as national base line.