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.

‘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.