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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Building Peace from the Ground Up

This is a transcript of a talk I gave to the Fathom Fourm in London 

On 30 June 2015, Joel Braunold, US Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) spoke to a Fathom Forum on the importance of people-to-people movements to any eventual resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When the Palestine Survey and Research Group published their quarterly research on levels of support for the two-state solution, everyone concentrated on the top line point, which is that support for the two-state solution has dropped to 51 per cent support in Israel and has stayed steady on 51 per cent support among Palestinians. But the really worrying statistics were below the fold. As many as 56 per cent of Israelis are worried or very worried on a daily basis that they will be murdered by Arabs and 79 per cent of Palestinians are worried or very worried on a daily basis that they will be murdered or have their land confiscated by Jews. It gets worse. 56 per cent of Palestinians believe that the Israeli objective is to expel them from the land, 25 per cent that the objective is annexation, whilst 43 per cent of Israelis believe that all Arabs are out to kill them and 18 per cent believe their aim is the conquest of Israel and the removal of their citizenship. Aggregated, between 60 and 80 per cent percent of the two populations believe that the intent of the other is the removal of their rights or their actual destruction. The Pew opinion surveys demonstrate that the youth of Israel and Palestine are even more pessimistic than their elders about the future, so any hopes that change may come with the new generation are likely misplaced.

The international community has been very good at focusing on doing civics, economics, or politics at any one time, but never all three simultaneously. When diplomatic efforts seemed to be succeeding during the Oslo years, governments placed a heavy emphasis on ‘people-to-people’ programmes designed to bring Jews and Arabs together, but post-Intifada there was a move towards a more economic approach with state building that saw $3 billion of US loans being poured into the construction of a Palestinian state. When this failed to lead to the creation of Palestinian state, the economic approach was abandoned in favour of a renewed focus on diplomacy, exemplified in John Kerry’s belief that if you managed to get the right people in the room and push hard enough a solution could be found. In short, the three components for Palestinian statehood and the end of occupation – which are all necessary but insufficient in themselves – have been segmented, resulting in repeated failure.

Underlying these failures has been a huge gulf in trust. It is that gulf which the ‘people-to-people’ community has been trying to close. Both within the Green Line and beyond it, there are a number of civil society groups that seek to bring Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs together, in agriculture, education, industry, high-tech work, and advocacy programmes. The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) was established in 2003 in Washington DC by Avi Meyerstein in response to the tendency of such ‘people-to-people’ movements to travel to Washington, meet with a member of the administration, and then leave empty-handed. ALLMEP is a coalition of 91 organisations which seeks to persuade lawmakers that the work of grassroots programmes is not only nice, but also necessary. At the moment, ALLMEP secures $10 million a year for grassroots programmes, 23 per cent of the global total, but this is not enough. The $1.5 billion fund that the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) had at its disposal over a 25 year period ensured that $33 per capita was spent on reconciliation programmes there, as opposed to $3.75 in Israel-Palestine. ALLMEP’s calculations suggest a $200 million Israeli-Palestinian Fund for International Peace is required to properly finance the vital work of peace and reconciliation organisations.

ALLMEP’s work extends beyond the financial dimension. On the human capital front, our regional director Huda Abuarquob seeks to build a sense of community amongst these extremely diverse groups, covering everything from Kids4Peace to Center for Religious Tolerance, and to help them co-operate, learn from each other, and leverage each other’s successes. We seek attention not to simply generate positive news stories but to ensure such stories are both noticed and seen as important. This is vital as Jewish philanthropists are prepared to channel vast sums of money into efforts to combat the movement for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), but are more reluctant to give to efforts to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Joint Social Venture Fund, the collective giving fund of the Jewish Federations of North America with a combined income of $3 billion per annum, gives only $800,000 towards efforts to build bridges between Jews and Arabs. There are some federations that sponsor this work such as in San Francisco and New York, but this lack of collective giving is a serious problem. So a greater focus on this work, whilst not a panacea, will go a long way to correct this problem of under-resourcing.

There are some, especially within the BDS movement who say our work is pointless, that it will never lead anywhere, and that it has no endgame. All I ask is that they hold their own community to the same standard to which they hold ours. The concept that the arc of history will suddenly bend and all will be well when you apply enough pressure is an absurdity today, when you have an armed and secure Israel that will under no circumstances give up that status. The best the BDS movement can hope for is an impoverished pariah state with unconfirmed nuclear weapons. The BDS movement has won the spotlight, but it needs to mature and decide how it wants to use it. At the moment, it promises full equality to Palestinians who live in Israel, the end of occupation to those who live in Gaza and the West Bank, and the full right of return to refugees. Everyone wins. The reality is that not everyone will win because there is another population there. The challenge the BDS movement faces is how they come to terms with that fact and engage with it.

More worrying still is the anti-normalisation movement, which seeks to police interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, cutting off all links that the BDS activists deem not to contribute to the right of return, the end of occupation, or full equality. Ultimately, these attempts to enforce separation are futile. But they make life especially difficult for those in the ‘people-to-people’ community, whose work is premised on bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. The philosophy of the anti-normalisation movement, built as it is on a refusal to believe in the power of conflict resolution or in the value of anything that does not directly support Palestinian struggle or protest, is intellectually coherent, but ultimately self-defeating. The average Israeli is not going to join Anarchists Against The Wall, yet almost everyone in the anti-normalisation movement is from the constituency of people who would. This ideological dogmatism chokes these movements, as they will achieve none of their goals by refusing to engage with the very Israeli Jews who disagree with them and that they need to persuade.

The unhelpful attitude prevails on both sides of the conflict. Anti-normalisation should be set alongside the proposed Israeli NGO laws to tax donations from foreign governments, brand NGOs that receive such donations as ‘foreign agents’, and limit government co-operation with such potential. Government restriction of funding to control the debate is the parallel of the anti-normalisation community. Just as the anti-normalisation community seeks to shut down anything that does not directly advance their specific agenda, such legislation attempts to shut down anything that disrupt the image that Israel puts out to the world.

‘People-to-people’ work has brought thousands together and has the potential to do so much more. A sceptical parent’s outlook might be changed by sending their children to a Hand In Hand School, a farmer’s through cross-border agricultural work with Olive Oil Without Borders, and someone with limited access to water can be reached by a cross-border water programme with EcoPeace. The best people to convince Israelis that Palestinians are not monsters, and to show the Palestinians that Israelis are not monsters, are the respective populations. It is only through affecting this kind of change by building trust that Arab-Jewish relations will be normalised. Yes, Jewish-Arab alliances must be built on the political level: Israeli governments routinely exclude 20 per cent of the population and a fundamental shift in political culture is needed there. But they must also exist on the local level. Until trust is built through practical action on the ground, every solution will ultimately be swallowed up by its absence.

Shutting down dissent in both Communities

This first appeared in Haaretz July 2nd and was co-authored by Huda Abuarquob 

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has dominated headlines of late, with anti-BDS legislation being passed in Congress and in the Knesset; pro-Palestinian students in America being “exposed;” an Israeli government minister being appointed especially to combat this threat; Britain’s national student union joining the BDS movement; the list goes on. Perhaps the BDS movement’s greatest achievement is the seriousness with which it is taken.

Yet, for those who are interested in advancing the cause of peace by building the necessary trust between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, the BDS movement is not the greatest threat; the anti-normalization movement is.

The anti-normalization movement has called for an end to all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that do not subscribe to three key tenets: ending the occupation; equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians; and a full right of return for Palestinian refugees. These three tenets are shared with the BDS movement, and, as such, the two movements are joined at the hip. Yet the effects on the ground of the anti-normalization movement are far more serious.

It seeks to police all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, and, as such, disrupts programs that it perceives as being unaligned with its agenda. This makes life particularly hard for those of us in the “people-to-people” community – who bring Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians together in school, agricultural, high-tech and advocacy programs or camps.

The movement does this because it believes that normalized relations between Palestinians and Israelis draws a false equivalence between the parties, and does nothing to address the power imbalance created by the occupation. Normalization, it contends, would remove the urgency for ending the occupation and granting Palestinians independence and sovereignty.

The only joint programs anti-normalization advocates condone are those that support resistance or protest. All others, they believe, undercut the Palestinian national struggle.

While the argument for anti-normalization is intellectually coherent, it is ultimately self-defeating. How, for example, will those who seek a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but refuse to allow them to engage with Jewish Israelis who reject the idea, succeed in convincing the Israelis that it is a viable option? How do they expect two conflicting parties to empathize with one another’s narratives when neither side has the opportunity to learn of the other’s struggle on a personal level? And how can they break the victim-perpetuator cycle if they do not seek an end to the victim-perpetrator identities? Preventing the conflicting sides from interacting enables anti-normalization activists to define the “other” in their own terms.

In their effort to delegitimize coexistence programming, anti-normalization activists lampoon people-to-people activities as Israelis and Palestinians coming together to eat hummus then go home. This is an utterly false representation of the people-to-people movement today. Look at the thousands engaged by Parents Circle or Combatants for Peace, the farmers whose crops have not wasted thanks to Olive Oil Without Borders or the communities receiving fresh water owing to the work of EcoPeace. These are just a sample of thousands of people whose lives have been changed through joint programs.

Change is painfully slow and real progress does not come fast enough for those who suffer the brunt of the occupation, but these joint programs are the best hope of fundamentally changing the worldviews of those who have been fighting for generations. People-to-People work today has evolved to be less about dialogue and far more about building trust. This is painfully slow and offers only incremental progress, yet given how each population fears the other, offers a real option for progress.

While the anti-normalization movement’s intimidation tactics and efforts to shut down dissent make up the Arab part of the challenge facing groups that operate in the people-to-people community, from the Israeli, Jewish side, the key challenge lies within the coalition.

We fear that legislation in the Israeli government could shut down discourse on a people-to-people level by weakening NGOs. The government has already introduced bills to tax donations by foreign government to such organizations, and brand NGOs or individuals who receive funding from foreign governments as “foreign agents.” Another bill would limit the degree to which the Israeli government and army cooperates with groups who receive financial support from foreign governments. This has the potential to prevent these NGOs’ programs from ever being integrated into Israel’s public sector.

By starving their funds, limiting their access to the government, and preventing them from communicating to the public at large, Israel portrays these groups as foreign interlopers, branding them, at best, as naïve, or, at worst, as the enemy within; dangerous agitators who draw false equivalences between Israel and her enemies.

Israel’s efforts to limit discourse mirror the anti-normalization movement’s efforts to curb dialogue – only the former does so via legislation, while the latter uses threats and intimidation. Together, these efforts become an anti-democratic front against coexistence groups working to create a shared society. Both sides hope to prevent having the voices heard of those who seek a different path to that of the majority. Both sides fear that unchecked discourse will undermine the majority’s political posturing and goals. Both sides seek to control the debate by preventing it from happening.

Yet, if we are to see any progress in the areas of peace, coexistence, security, freedom, justice and rights, it will be on a basis that Palestinians and Israelis have a shared future. We need space to run programs that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to explore these values as one, without fear or intimidation. Jews and Arabs are either destined or doomed to share the land together. Let us work for the former to avoid the latter.

‘Peace’ doesn’t belong solely to Israelis, nor ‘justice’ to Palestinians

This article first appeared in Haaretz on the 30th of September 2014

The summer of 2014 was a horrendous experience. The kidnappings, riots, murders and war that gripped Israelis and Palestinians has left a bleeding wound that is still festering.

The violence of the summer also demonstrated the parallel universes within which each community, and their supporters, resides. Gilad Lotan’s groundbreaking research into the social media networks has demonstrated how each community talks past each other. Even people-to-people approaches, those attempts to try to foster some aspect of dialogue, found it increasingly hard to find a common language in the violent cacophony that engulfed the region this summer.

Digging a little bit into Lotan’s data we can find that the very language and concepts that each community uses are now completely distinct. ‘Peace’ is a term that has been appropriated by the pro-Israel community. In contrast, the issue of rights features prominently in analysis offered by pro-Palestinian networks; it is absent from the other side of the debate.

During my years working in and around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the appropriation of language has been getting worse. Within the Israeli camp, one hears of security, peace and coexistence. Within the Palestinian camp, justice, rights and freedom.

These concepts are all necessary for a lasting solution to the conflict, yet our inability to solve it has led the two camps to surround themselves with concepts that each believes are their birthright alone. Justice is not a divisible ideal; security must be inclusive if it is to be sustainable.

The appropriation of these terms though is more then just an interesting, if somewhat depressing, anecdote. The real world implications have been that programs that have sought to promote one or more of these values are instantly tagged as partisan.

‘Peace’ is only spoken about in quotation marks among many within the pro-Palestine movement. Too many false dawns have led them to the conclusion that any talk of peace is a fig leaf for the continued occupation. Peace has been replaced with Justice, a virtue that will reward the oppressed and punish those who occupy.

Within much of the pro-Israel community talk of rights (outside the right to self-defense) is immediately seen as suspicious. The institutional challenges of forums such as the UN Human Rights Council has created a defensive reflex within the community whenever the topic of rights is discussed.

Standing behind all of this are two radically different framings to the situation. For the Palestinians, this is a Zionist occupation of Palestine, one that has a clear imbalance of power between the occupied and the occupier. Any framing that tries to draw equivalence between the sides normalizes the situation and benefits the Israelis.

For the Israelis, this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, with Israel surrounded by a seething Arab world of hundreds of millions, a world that will not talk to them and characterizes them in the worst frames of Jewish history. An iron wall must be created to protect the villa in the jungle, a place where liberal democracy (with its warts and all) can flourish. Any cracks in that wall will be exploited and Israel will cease to exist. All outside must be treated with upmost suspicion. Peace is to be dictated on terms that can maintain the security that Israel has relied on to survive.

Each community viciously rejects any comparison to the other. The day-to-day reality means that while Israelis can generally get on with their lives and flourish (albeit under incredible levels of stress), Palestinians continue to suffer the daily indignities that an occupation brings.

The current situation is not stable. Violence is spilling out of the seams as the status quo fractures and groups try and take advantage of the despair that is filling the vacuum. Anything constructive must have a foundation, and in this case it must be based on the shared concepts of peace, justice, security, rights, freedom and coexistence. Finding ways to depolarize these concepts is essential to move forward. What must be done is to show that these virtues are all part of a shared future. This is the goal of people-to-people programming – creating a shared set of values with which to move forward.

People-to-people programs, whether between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs or within each group itself are easy to dismiss. On first glance they can appear fanciful and naïve. Like every other approach, they have so far not been able to solve this problem and are therefore dismissed. But that is a mistake.

These programs all have within them the necessary, aspects that any solution will be build upon. The creators and volunteers within these groups will be the first to tell you that they know that their work alone is not sufficient, but needs to be part of a mosaic to help turn the tide against those who wish to invest in the status quo and deepen the power imbalance. They are necessary though.

These dialogues, the ones that have survived the trials and tribulations of the past twenty years, are neither purposeless nor aimless. It is not about sitting around and eating humus while the world around them burns. Rather each attempts to affect change in some aspect of society, be it education, environment, economy, culture, faith or politics.

By coordinating and unifying various approaches, these peace builders look to create something out of the rubble that this summer, and so many of the summers before it, have left in their wake.