Why we need to put our chips behind people-to-people work

This article first appeared on Times of Israel Jan 29th 2016

When looking at the Israeli Palestinian conflict there is an exasperation and irritation at the utter inability to progress forward on any meaningful peace process. Despite billions spent, the international community is stuck with limited policy options and a deteriorating political reality.

In this complex picture, when one mentions people-to-people work the response is a sigh. For many serious policy makers, people-to-people stands for kids, kittens and camps. The community is the poster child of the failed Oslo process and something that is, at best, nice but never necessary.

This mischaracterization of this community and the old stereotype of eating hummus together and going home pays no attention to the evolution of the field and the real work and impacts that this community has, and continues to have accomplished.

The best way of understanding people-to-people today is as a community that works on finding ways to integrate Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, with equality. Their work is so necessary in a system that pushes for segregation along ethnic lines. This system has complex origins, from the overarching reality of today’s Middle East, to the threat of violence, to the way that Israel’s educational system was set up to the current governments of each community. The net effect is an entire system that pushes to segregate and separate unequally.

It is no wonder therefore that when asked “how worried are you on a daily basis that a Jew will hurt you or a member of your family”, 79% of Palestinians say they are worried or very worried. Before the latest wave of violence, 56% of Israeli Jews were worried or very worried, and it does not take Nostradamus to predict that the statistic has likely worsened.

The fact remains that with this level of fear and mistrust of the other on a personal level, we have no ability to move forward on any potential peace process. There is simply a profound lack of the trust or humanization of the other that is needed to change the current dynamics.

The groups that are working within the system to effectively move the system over time are those within the people-to-people community. From advocacy groups working on Israeli governmental funding mechanisms, to farmers creating cross border trade relationships, to the after school program bringing West and East Jerusalem children together, these are the tools necessary to bridge the divide.

This community is doing their work in an ever-increasingly hostile environment. In order to be successful, these programs need to ensure that those participating see a benefit from getting involved, they need to ensure that as well as working across communities, the participants are working within their own communities, and finally, they need to ensure that they are integrating alumni from their programs into their ongoing programming. By following these principles of best practice, groups pushing integration can be effective at driving change in the system.

Sadly, this best practice is also a recipe for exponentially rising costs of the programs. As one increases the amount of participants each year, the program gets more costly despite the fact that the funding pool is staying the same.

We estimate that there is roughly $45 million dollars spent per annum on what is broadly seen as peace and reconciliation work between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. With 12 million people, we are spending just under $4 per capita per year as an international community.

The current largest donor is USAID through its Conflict Management and Mitigation grant program, something that we at ALLMEP are very proud to have helped start and sustain through our advocacy work on Capitol Hill. Though not in the federal budget, it has for the past eight years given $10 million annually for people-to-people work between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs and has remained level funded despite cuts to many other items within the foreign affairs budget. The entire community is deeply indebted to the key appropriators.

Yet despite this program, the programs are not reaching the scale they need to given the challenging circumstances and rising costs. If we are going to unlock greater resources we must look to other models that leverage public and private resources. In the Northern Irish conflict, the International Fund for Ireland distributed over a billion dollars over 24 years to Catholics and Protestants. Created by Congress, this fund distributed an average of $33 per capita from 1986 to 2010.

Learning from this model, ALLMEP has been advocating for the creation of an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace, a $200 million annual fund with contributions from Congress, EU member states, the international community and the private sector, to scale the most successful programs that exist today. In this Congress, Congressman Crowley (D-NY) and Congressman Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced HR1489 to authorize the creation and appropriations of such a fund.

As we look to what can be achieved today, building a vehicle to support civil society, something not dependent on a particular peace process or on the ups and downs of the current moment, can create the long-term support necessary to push the system and start changing the fear dynamics.

Civil society is not alone sufficient to get us to the finish line, but without it, we have no hope at all.

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Will American Zionists be sued for urging a boycott of Israeli settlements?

This article first appeared in Haaretz 4/29/15

There has been a long running debate within the Jewish pro-Israel community in the Diaspora about how to best deal with BDS. One argument states that you must reject BDS in any form or format. Boycott of settlements is just a slippery slope to boycotting Israel and therefore everything from labeling products to identifying settlement companies should be opposed.

The other, often used by the Zionist left, states that the best way to deal with BDS is to demonstrate the utility of the tactic when it comes to settlements and draw a clear line between Zionist BDS (to borrow a phrase from Peter Beinart) and the general BDS movement, whose demand of a full right of return and ambiguity on what solution they are seeking threaten Zionism itself.

When the pro-Israel Jewish community established its red lines, support of BDS was the litmus test. The uncertainty around these red lines boiled down to this: Can one support a settlement boycott and still be part of the pro-Israel community?

In America this debate is played out every year in the Israel Parade in New York, when the Jewish Community Relations Council deals with the pro-Israel right’s attempts to ban the pro-Israel left from marching. The right claims that the left’s support for a boycott of the settlements means it should not be allowed to take part.

This month, Israel’s High Court of Justice upheld the “Anti-Boycott Law” and codified that BDS is an all-or-nothing enterprise. Israel’s finance minister now has the ability to punish entities that call for a boycott of the settlements. In addition, individuals can be liable for damages caused by their call for boycott, be that of settlements or Israel “proper.”

In practice, this means that if you have some 50,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and you write a status that says that you encourage your friends not to buy wine produced in the settlements, you could be liable for damages that the vineyard could bring against you, if they can show they lost a sale.

The more effective your call is, the more liable you could be.

It’s not clear how much this will affect foreign nationals at this point, but the court decision has legislated an end to the debate within the pro-Israel community. BDS is now an all-or-nothing enterprise, an approach that maintains that there is no difference between the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan and Tel Aviv. This is the argument that settler groups have always maintained. Those in the BDS community who also argue that the Green Line is a false distinction join them.

The new all-or-nothing approach is further strengthened by pending Congressional legislation that also links boycott of Israeli settlements to the general BDS movement. The amendment to the customs act would punish corporations and trade partners who support a boycott of Israel or “any of its territories.”

The result of the High Court decision is that one can call for a boycott of a business for unfair labor practices, environmental issues, gender or social statements by business owners or a whole other host of reasons. But calling for a boycott based on the location of the business could cause an NGO to lose its non-profit status.

The High Court’s ruling means that non-profits and individuals no longer have the freedom to express their views on this existential issue for Israel without significant legal and financial ramifications.

It will be interesting to see if prominent left-wing Diaspora Jews, like Peter Beinart and others could be ordered to appear before an Israeli court to pay damages for their activism.

What is for sure, is that the application of this law will further tear apart the pro-Israel community and force people into polemical positions; Israel right or wrong, or support real pressure to get Israel to change course. The ongoing debate within the Diaspora of how one can express their disagreement with Israeli settlement policy has just been severely restricted.

Much like the results of the Israeli election, these legislative moves in Jerusalem, and potentially in Washington, help destroy a complex relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish state by forcing people into abject support or rejection of Israel. With a new narrow right-wing government on the horizon in Israel, this will continue to erode U.S. bipartisan support and damage Israel’s most strategic asset.

Are Economics the Best Way to Get the Israelis to the Table?

Pieria 5/7/13

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to pull rabbits out of his hat and get headlines in his attempt to get the Middle East Peace Process back on track, the parties involved seem less keen.

As predicted, the Palestinians did not react well to the economic levers that Kerry announced, seeing it as another attempt to trade Palestinian political rights for an economic peace. A question that needs to be answered is: does the use of economic levers in Israel/Palestine negotiations help or hinder their progress?

Linkage theory

While the Palestinian side of this dynamic has been well explored, for the Israelis there are still some false assumptions. In order to discover them, first we need to understand how the Israelis see the conflict.

The Israelis are keen to stress that the conflicts in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, demonstrate that the so-called ‘linkage’ theory is disproven. ‘Linkage’ is the concept that by solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict you would create stability in the region and it is at the root cause of the majority of the problems the Middle East faces.

Many, including the Israeli government, dispute this analysis and instead point to the general instability in the Middle East as their main concern of making peace agreements with parties whose own political future is in question.

What the Israelis will point to, however, is that allowing daylight between the West and Israel on any issue in the diplomatic arena is a green light to Israel’s enemies. So while the Israelis will decry linkage as a reason to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do maintain that a diplomatic sanction aimed at their behavior towards the Palestinians directly affects all other parts of their security dynamic.

This complexity of the security picture that the Israelis face in a regional context is often forgotten due to the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the majority of the world, the frame of reference for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of an asymmetric occupation. For the Israelis the frame is the Israeli-Arab conflict that puts Israel against almost all the countries of the Middle East.

These frames of reference matter. The tools available to those attempting to press Israel towards substantive negotiations depend to a large extent on which of these perspectives is adopted.

Falling value of economic leverage

It is in this light that we should view the common assumption within much of Europe that if the US put on the economic squeeze on the Israelis, they could get them to do what they wanted. Many point to the 90s, where the first President Bush suspended loan guarantees to push Israel into the Madrid Peace Conference.

Economic pressure has, over the past few years, been the favored tool of civil society that is critical of Israel and her actions towards the Palestinians. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a non-violent strategy to change the status quo vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians. Various groups have different goals in their campaigns – but share the belief that economic pressure can force the Israelis to change their policies.

One of the major problems with this approach is that the country is not the same as it was in the early 90s. Israel is now a member of the OECD and has turned into a high tech powerhouse. The ‘start-up nation’ continues to be a magnet for direct foreign investment from huge multi-nationals and celebrity investors.  Add to this the new natural gas and potential tight oil finds and Israel’s economic future looks anything but bleak.

Yet with all this private sector success, Israel is still the largest recipient of foreign aid from the USA running at just over $3 billion a year. If only the US would put policy riders on this aid, the argument goes, then Israel could be forced into a more pro-peace position.

While this huge amount of aid may look like the perfect leverage, the current US and geo-political realities have made this far less clear.

Much of the aid is supplied in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region at large. For the majority of the supporters of this aid package, Israel is viewed in the context of the entire region.

Moreover even if John Kerry wanted to add conditions to the aid, it is not in his power to do so. It is up to the US Congress to allocate aid and at present it would be almost unthinkable for Congress to change its mind, given current events in the Middle East.

For the vast majority of Congress, the aid is an easy way to make sure that a nation that shared the vast majority of its foreign policy objectives, as well as many of its overall values, can do so without US troops. As Israel has shown in Syria, it is happy to take the lead if it feels it needs to. In a rapidly changing strategically important region, a war weary US population may balk at withdrawing money from an ally who is willing to fight on the front lines.

A diplomatic approach

Given this, is there anything left in John Kerry’s bag of tricks to get the Peace Process rolling again?

To my mind the answer is not to focus on economic levers but to look at diplomatic ones instead. If Israel is keen on denying that ‘linkage’ exists, then Kerry’s team should detach their support for Israel in the context of the region as a whole from their support of Israel with regard to the Palestinians. By making it clear that the US will not have Israel’s back in the UN Security Council when it comes to settlement expansion they can demonstrate a clear stick within the Israeli-Palestinian frame of reference to Israel’s non-compliance.

This way they can maintain their support for Israel’s role within the wider Middle East, if they so wish, yet still create pressure within the narrower sphere of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel’s Achilles heel has morphed from economic to diplomatic dependency. With this being the case, Kerry’s team needs to adopt a complex view to its diplomatic relations with its number one ally in the region. Having Israel’s back in a hostile neighborhood is different from enabling it diplomatically to entrench its occupation of the Palestinians.

Kerry has set up the carrot of the Arab Peace Initiative, he now needs a diplomatic stick to help him guide the peace process back on track.

Is Congress Broken

Progress 9/8/11

Watching the US Congress operate, British MPs might have the right to feel a little jealous. Here is a system in which members of the lower and upper house have real power. Yet with great power should come great responsibility, a responsibility that has been sorely lacking from the men and women trusted with governing the worlds most important economy.

Though the game of chicken with the world’s economy is now over, the crisis has been replaced with what could be the start of a global double dip recession. Since the US has raised the debt ceiling and slashed $2.4 trillion off spending the Dow Jones index has dropped more then 500 points. Congressional disapproval stands at an all-time high of 82%.

The US stand-off for the past three weeks was not the only cause of this crash, but it certainly was not the steadfast, politically grown-up and responsible action one expects of lawmakers at the helm of a superpower.

Reading through the barrels of ink split over the vote, a question that consistently comes up is whether, when up to the wire, Congress will really deliver? Must there be a crisis of epic proportions in order to get congressional figures on either side to work together? From the details of the debt-ceiling bill, the answer seems to be yes.

The way that the bill is structured is such that, while a trillion dollars was cut at its passing, Congress voted to establish a ‘Super Committee’ whose job it will be to find the additional trillion and change to cut and present their finding to Congress for an up and down vote. This vote must happen and there are no amendments orfilibusters allowed. If for whatever reason the committee cannot agree or the vote fails to pass there are two triggers built in. The $1.2 trillion dollar cuts will fall evenly between the Pentagon and Medicare. By mutually assured (political) destruction the parties have agreed to hold a gun to their heads to motivate them to act.

Apart from the fact that the bill suggests that Democrats only care about entitlement programmes and Republicans about the military, what does this indicate about the most powerful democratic country in the world? That it needs to threaten itself with domestic Armageddon in order to work out its fiscal situation. How would you feel if you were a senior or a member of the US armed forces that your financial future is being used as collateral to make the parities actually govern together?

Congress has not always been like this, so what broke the most important political system in the world? Since the Obama election and the rise of the Tea Party, partisan politics have reached new heights in the US. By electing Tea Partiers to power, segments of the American people have put anti-government ideologues into the heart of a system that requires everyone to have the same goal in mind.

A significant amount of congressional figures being unwilling to compromise, regardless of the consequences might have caused the Democrats to give up all their red lines on this occasion, but is no guarantee of future cooperation.

A system does not work if one side plays ball and the other just sits stone-faced and says no. Unless the Republican leadership can get the Tea Party to play by Washington’s rules – exactly what they were elected to oppose – we can expect more nailbiting, economically and socially devastating votes. The last one passed by a couple of hours and the economy tanked; the US might not be so lucky next time.