This week’s announcement by the government that it will invest up to £3 million over the next three years in coexistence projects which bring together Israelis and Palestinians represents a huge step forward in Labour Friends of Israel’s five-year campaign to secure more investment in this vital work.
More importantly, it is a massive boost to the Israelis and Palestinians who are building the foundations of a future peace settlement by promoting the values of reconciliation and trust through such people-to-people projects. I have met many of them in truly inspiring projects like MEET (Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow), One Voice and the Parents Circle Families Forum.
It has been a long and sometimes bumpy road. Last year, Britain’s already pitiful investment in coexistence work – around £150,000 a year – was cut entirely. However, sustained pressure from LFI parliamentary supporters – in particular, my colleague Ian Austin – means that ministers now appear to have seen the light. This was never a partisan issue, so I thank Priti Patel, whom Ian and I met late last year to press the case, for listening and acting.
It’s very easy to see people-to-people projects as simply a fluffy add-on to the peacemaking efforts of politicians and diplomats. In reality, the civil society element of peace-building is just as important as the political and economic dimensions. It is thus about very practical politics: how to garner the necessary public support for any future agreement and how to ensure that that agreement can weather the challenges it will inevitably face.
We know that coexistence projects work. Robust evaluations detailed in last week’s report by BICOM on peacebuilding show that people-to-people work significantly improves Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other.
We know this, too, from the example of the International Fund for Ireland, which has invested more than €900 million in 6,000 civil society peace-building programmes over the past 32 years. As Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief negotiator in Northern Ireland, argued recently: “While every conflict has different causes and solutions, we know from Northern Ireland that long-term grassroots peacebuilding between the contending parties is always essential to achieving peace.”
But EU and US investment in such projects in Ireland is at least 15 times greater than that invested in Israel-Palestine, despite the population of Northern Ireland being less than 15 percent of that of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza combined.
We need to make Britain’s announcement a catalyst for closing this gap. That’s why, along with our friends in the Alliance for Middle East Peace, LFI last year launched a campaign to establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. It would aim to leverage and invest $200 million in people-to-people work split roughly equally between the US, Europe, other international partners including the Arab world, and the private sector.
In January, I garnered cross-party backing for a 10-minute rule bill urging the government to support the creation of the fund. I’ve been to Washington to push a similar bill on Capitol Hill. This week, the US House of Representatives agreed a significant $10 million investment.
LFI now has three goals: first, to monitor the implementation of the UK’s new investment, second, to persuade ministers to use Britain’s clout overseas to get the International Fund off the ground, and third, we will continue to push the government to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for incitement, particularly that targeted at children and young people. That way we can ensure that all our international development spending supports the fostering of a culture of peace.