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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Can Israel and Palestine learn anything from Tunisia

This article first appeared in Haaretz Oct 16th

The Middle East looks like a graveyard for hope. Throughout the region, violence is spinning out of control and the world’s leaders seem to lack any semblance of a strategy to contain it.

It is on this backdrop that the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was so wonderful and surprising. While Nobel-watchers thought his holiness the pope or German Chancellor Angela Merkel were front runners, the committee decided to grant this honor to a quartet of civil society actors in Tunisia – the National Dialogue Quartet – who helped ensure that the birthplace of the Arab Spring would continue the path to democracy.

It is worthwhile reading the entire story behind the how the labor and trade unions, human rights activists, and a professional association of lawyers came together to form an unlikely quartet to save Tunisia’s nascent democracy after political assassinations and constitutional deadlock. Yet what is important is to understand that this unusual coalition was so diverse in its constituents, so unassailable in its credibility, and so masterful in mediation that it managed to get the budding democracy to pull back from the brink and fix the fractured political situation. Tunisia remains one of the few bright spots in a region so desperate for heroes.

It is always hard to apply the lessons from one country to another, but there is wisdom in how civil society played such a key role in Tunisia when the elected officials failed. Democracy is far more than the ballot box; it is a society that takes ownership of itself.

The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed. Israelis certainly don’t feel safe, and Palestinians are no closer to ending the occupation. The political echelons seem incapable of delivering their populations a bright future. Is there a role for civil society to play in this conflict, outside the ballot box?

At different times, attempts have been made to get different civilians to play a productive role in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the Kerry initiative, business leaders from across both camps came together to try to “Break the Impasse.” Yet despite this group comprising business leaders from a vast array of their respective economies, they could not find the way to move the ball forward.

Israel’s trade union, the Hisdatraut  and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions came together to express their hopes for peace and signed agreements to advance “fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”

And the human rights communities in both Israel and Palestine have long, established working relationships, trying to ensure international law is upheld both day-to-day and at times of conflict.

Yet before these branches can come together across the societies, they must first come together within each of their societies.

In Palestine, the divide between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is creating a fractious identity. Finding a way for civic unity for a society separated by borders and circumstance is a daunting task. It was the street on March 15, 2011 that demanded unity and kicked off the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the leaders’ failure to implement an agreement, it will fall on the street again to force the issue, and build the groundwork required to hold elections on the day after President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin has diagnosed, is split into tribes – ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews, and Arabs – who are struggling to find a common identity.

With Arabs making up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, we – Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – must collectively recognize that Arab citizens are not a tolerated few, but equal citizens. We need to put an end to the perception of Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat. For when we perceive them as a threat, two things happen. First, all of our relationships with “the other” inherently become threatening. Second, we bequeath this conflict to our children and our grandchildren.

At times of increased tension and violence, civil society – both Arab and Jewish – can calm the tensions, even as elected representatives fan the flames. They can do this by sharing access to public resources, creating common civic values and finding practical partnerships between different civic and municipal groups that offer public services.

A civil society that has found a collective identity, that has achieved wins for its communities and can credibly advocate on behalf of its communities, stands a chance at creating its own quartet – one that is just as effective as the Tunisians’ and more effective than the diplomatic Middle East Quartet that currently exists.

In a region full of violence and hate, I do thank the Nobel Prize committee for honoring the unsung heroes of Tunisia – the unionists and businessmen, lawyers and human rights activists – who showed that change is possible and hope still has a place in the Middle East.