Middle East peace must go beyond party politics

The scene where a house was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018. Photo by: JINIPIX via Jewish News
The scene where a house was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018. Photo by: JINIPIX via Jewish News

The past year has seen precious little progress for those of us who wish to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Last week’s terrible events in Gaza are a reminder of the fragility of the situation. Hamas’ indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians, the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the lack of American leadership are combining to make a noxious cocktail.

The circumstances in which both sides can sit down, talk, and begin to resolve their differences – as we know that they eventually must – seem far off.

But this counsel of despair about the moribund political process should not be the cause for us to abandon hope. Indeed, it simply opens a void in which, even some well-meaning people, can become enticed by the dangerous and divisive appeal of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Instead, we should redouble our efforts to strengthen the civil society foundations upon which any future political agreement will need to rest. It is worth recalling that the Northern Ireland peace process has been sustained by strong popular support; support that began to be built in the darkest days of The Troubles more than a decade before the Good Friday Agreement, with the establishment of an
International Fund for Ireland.

Robust evaluations detailed in last year’s report by BICOM on peace-building show that people-to-people work significantly improves Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other. The US international development agency, USAID, agrees. It has found that those participating in cross-border coexistence report higher levels of trust and cooperation, more “conflict resolution values”, and less aggression and loneliness.

Anyone who visits such projects, as I have done on several occasions, cannot fail to be inspired by the sight of young Israelis and Palestinians learning what they have in common, rather than what divides them.

Two years ago, Labour Friends of Israel launched the UK campaign to push for an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Designed and promoted by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, it would aim to leverage and invest £155million in people-to-people work split roughly equally between the US, Europe, other international partners including the Arab world, and the private sector.

The campaign is now producing real results. In the United States Congress, bills have recently been passed with bipartisan support to allocate US cash to the fund. European governments are showing an increased interest in its potential. And, thanks to LFI’s efforts, earlier this year, Britain became the first country to offer its support for the establishment of the fund – building our success in securing £3m in new investment in coexistence projects in 2017.

This is a cause that goes beyond party politics and I’m grateful for the interest and encouragement the Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt, has shown in both coexistence work in general and the fund in particular. Ministers have taken the first big step by endorsing this important initiative. Now it’s time for them to go further.

With our seat at the United Nations, our historic links to the region, and the fact we have good relations with many of the key players – the US, Israel, the Palestinians and Gulf states – who will need to come together to make it a success, Britain is perhaps uniquely placed to play a role in leading and shaping this crucial effort.

Over the coming months, LFI will be redoubling our efforts to work with MPs from across the House of Commons to encourage the government to seize it.

About the Author
Joan Ryan MP is parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel.
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