WASHINGTON, DC — Turning points in history often seem to come out of nowhere. But, hindsight usually shows they were a long time in the making. Though citizens suddenly broke through the Berlin Wall one day, cracks formed below the surface over years. The “breakthrough” event only arrived as the result of millions of hidden moments of struggle.
Last Thursday was full of such hidden moments on the road toward Middle East peace. To be clear, there were no major breakthroughs in sight. The hope for diplomatic progress has almost never been fainter. In fact, many analysts worry that the current situation is ripe for a new explosion of violence.
Below the radar, though, tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are working together to create resilient partnerships, a strong safety net of relationships, and eventually, a shared peaceful future. Last week, in particular, they came to Washington, D.C. to push for dramatic change.
Dozens of Israeli and Palestinian civic leaders within the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) traveled here with two powerful messages. First, each person can be part of the solution. Society can reach breakthroughs, but only if enough individuals join the struggle. Second, thousands of partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians already have strengthened many communities and changed many lives. If we scale up their efforts, we can truly move the needle on the conflict.
Who are these hidden changemakers? They are mothers and fathers who buried children in war but turned to each other in grief to promote reconciliation in schools and public squares. They are olive farmers forming partnerships across borders to grow business by $20 million. They are Jewish and Arab environmentalists working to restore the Jordan River, bring clean water to schools, or develop renewable energy. They are families across East and West Jerusalem with children in joint after-school programs, basketball leagues, and rock bands.
You may not see them on TV, but they are growing in number and strength. Just months ago, 30,000 marched to Jerusalem. Three weeks ago, 3,000 Arabs and Jews gathered in a warehouse in Haifa to sing a heart-pounding rendition of “One Day.” When ALLMEP began, it was a coalition of 12 people-to-people organizations. Now, it has more than 110 groups in its network.
These peacebuilders focus their energies on the main obstacle to peace: the gap of trust. Most Israelis and Palestinians are open to a negotiated solution. Polls continue to show that the majority support shared ideas that could form a deal. But, most are cynical or apathetic because they believe (incorrectly) that they have no willing partners on the other side. They believe there’s nothing they can do. They support peace in theory but believe it’s a lost cause in practice.
Thousands of Palestinians and Israelis in the ALLMEP community have demonstrated that each person can make a difference. Each of us must choose a path – resist the conflict or fuel it. Peace will not suddenly appear in a “breakthrough.” We must create it steadily over time. It gains the strength of an Old City wall after we lay hundreds of building blocks, one at a time.
While they can do a great deal as individuals, the Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders came to Washington because they can’t do it alone. They need a structural fix for a structural problem. A whirlwind of politics, media, and separation has institutionalized fear, hatred, and violence. It has fueled a perfect storm of apathy and despair.
We can re-wire the system, though. The blueprint exists. A $1.5 billion international fund in Northern Ireland worked for years to create the environment in which peace breakthroughs occurred. Similarly, we can institutionalize and scale up cooperation, engagement, and partnership in the Middle East.
That’s why the ALLMEP leaders in Washington last week urged U.S. policy makers to create an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. The international community must appoint someone to wake up every day with the mission and the budget to scale up the good guys – the ones fueling reconciliation. We’ve invested plenty in the status quo. It’s well past time to finance long-term peace.
The effort is gaining steam. There is already bipartisan legislation in Congress – H.R. 1221 – to establish the Fund. A wide range of leaders and organizations support it – from former Prime Minister and Middle East envoy Tony Blair to the Jewish Federations of North America. Last week, in a major step forward, the United Kingdom announced its support in Parliament.
When the ALLMEP leaders gathered last Thursday in Washington, it was not a breakthrough day. There were no grand ceremonies, no speeches, no delegations. The media did not report any remarkable developments on the path toward peace. But, know this: the future is one moment closer. The struggle for peace is well underway.