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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The Case for an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace

This piece first appeared in The Hill 1/17/15

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” remarked Charles Caleb Colton in 1824.

Congress should pay itself this compliment by establishing an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace that mirrors the bipartisan path blazed in 1986 by then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) and President Ronald Reagan in their successful efforts creating the same institution to address the violence in Northern Ireland.

Fortunately, with the courageous leadership of two members of Congress, the first step has already been taken.

In the 113th Congress, Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced a bipartisan proposal that would, like Congress did for Ireland, establish and contribute to an International Fund “to promote and support contact, cooperation, dialogue, shared community building, peaceful coexistence, joint economic development, and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.”

H.R. 5795, the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Authorization Act of 2014, recognizes that, despite political efforts, official negotiations, and significant investment in a political solution to peace, longstanding peace requires support from citizens.  H.R. 5795 promotes the efforts of those working every day to demystify the “other side” and encourages interactions to break down the metaphorical walls between citizens.

The International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace is a component of, not an alternative to, a negotiated peace between the two sides.  However, the grassroots component of any long-lasting resolution has not received the political or financial support it deserves.

Currently, through the USAID Conflict Management and Mitigation Program, Congress provides $10 million a year for grants to “people-to-people” reconciliation programs in the region.  This figure pales in comparison to the resources dedicated to the “top-down” approach to peace.

The International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Authorization Act of 2014 would increase U.S. investment in these initiatives by providing $50 million in seed money, to be matched (as was done with the International Fund for Ireland) by other participating nations, private sector donations, and philanthropic contributions.

Nearly 30 years ago, President Reagan urged that “our efforts, together with those of the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, will help to promote economic and social development in Ireland, thereby constructing a durable framework that would provide a promise of peace.”

These same words could be spoken today about the conflict in the Middle East.

Now that the 114th Congress has convened, it should quickly imitate the work done by its legislative counterparts nearly 30 years earlier.  The lessons learned in Northern Ireland should guide our actions in the Middle East.  The proposal from Crowley and Fortenberry should be reintroduced, and the legislation should move quickly through the U.S. Congress.

President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill would be flattered to see the legislature replicating their bipartisan success.