Power to the peacemakers

Just two weeks before the world witnessed the insurrection in the US Capitol, the US Congress achieved a moment of rare bipartisanship, approving $250 million to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian efforts to overcome the conflict which has embittered the lives of both peoples for so many decades. These funds dramatically expand support for the kinds of civil society and economic ventures needed to build popular support and pathways for peace. This step represents a significant milestone in this stubbornly persistent conflict. It has the potential to be game-changing.

This historic level of funding for people-to-people peacebuilding activities comes under the auspices of the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), and will be administered over five years’ time. Even better, this will leverage further donor funding, as it provides a cornerstone for the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, whose advocates envision a much larger and longer-term investment in the kind of grassroots work crucial to laying the foundations for a viable peace.

In focusing on civil society, this recognizes that there are many ordinary people who refuse to give in to the conflict’s magnetic pull. Despite the ongoing violence and wrecked hopes of the last few decades, dozens of organizations have continued bringing together thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, both cross-border and between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, in activities that create social ties, build common ground, and/or address the underlying social and political issues.

There are those who will argue that MEPPA reflects naïve American optimism. But at a time that Americans are losing loved ones and livelihoods in tragically record-breaking numbers to Covid-19, and dealing with political and economic problems of unprecedented proportions, the decision to grant funds of such significant scope reflects the soberest of judgments that this investment will pay off. It is rooted in an analysis that the same Israelis and Palestinians who are already deeply engaged in working on solutions are the people best positioned to play a lead role in forging the path forward.

This funding presents us — Israelis and Palestinians, and those who care about this region — with three big challenges, and a call to action.

“The conflict is intractable”

Too many politicians, academics and pundits have bought into the theory that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intractable. This presumption effectively condemns us to perpetual conflict. If it can’t be resolved, why bother trying? It ensures that our children, grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren will continue, from generation to generation, to fight these battles. Almost as though it’s our destiny to do so.

But history contradicts this proposition, offering many examples of conflicts across continents, cultures and centuries that were eventually either resolved or significantly improved upon. In fact, the example inspiring the efforts for the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace is the International Fund for Ireland, which was established in 1986 after various failed efforts to resolve the violent conflict that had endured there for decades, with roots stretching back centuries. The multilateral Ireland fund invested heavily in a decade+ of grassroots programs that thickened ties and trust between ordinary citizens. This was crucial in paving the way to the 1998 Good Friday Agreements, as it nurtured both the popular and political support needed for the accord to take root.

Consider Yugoslavia, Rwanda, South Africa, the reunification of East and West Germany, and various other examples of violent conflicts, or systems characterized by ongoing violence, injustice and inter-group tensions, that undergo deep systemic changes for the better due to sustained efforts. In each case, for many years throughout the situation’s continuation, it would have been unimaginable to imagine that anything could ever change. But in each case, the situation improved in significant ways compared to what it had been. Neither tensions nor problems magically disappeared, and new challenges inevitably arose to replace the old ones. But the changes provided the foundations and possibilities for continued progress.

With all that is specific, even unique, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no reason to believe that this situation is so fundamentally different from all other human societies or experiences that determined, pragmatic and creative efforts to find workable solutions will forever fail. But it is likely to require rethinking some of our fundamentals.

I come to these conclusions based on almost thirty years of working, studying and living experiences in the realm of international conflict, migration and development, and focusing intensively for the last ten years on changing Jewish-Arab/Israeli-Palestinian relations. Throughout I have always been in pursuit of the same question: how can states and societies accommodate diversity (ethnic, religious, political) in a way which maximizes welfare and minimizes harm within and between the groups living there? This is the pressing question of our times globally; it was the pressing question for millennia for the Jews living in the diaspora; and it is the most pressing question facing Israelis and Palestinians as they pursue their respective national aspirations.

“There is no partner for peace”

Israeli Jews have become entrenched in the belief there is “no partner” for peace on the other side. And the Palestinian anti-normalization stance presumes prima facie that Israelis can never act as genuine partners in change. And yet, thousands of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, have continued to work together over these many years, even as the conflict has relentlessly battered away at their efforts. Men and women, young and old, have engaged in joint activities, on an ongoing basis, in every imaginable sector: health, education, human rights, economic, environment, academia, tech, agriculture, sports, culture, religion and more. They have developed relationships, empathy and mutual understanding; common ground and common goals; and ways to debate the dilemmas of their differences and the ongoing violence.

Their determination, despite it all, makes one thing quite clear: willing and able partners exist on both sides. The MEPPA funding spotlights that their very stubbornness is a sign of their success. And both their successes and failures offer invaluable lessons for moving forward.

This indicates that perhaps we need to reconsider where our divisions, in fact, lie. Perhaps the divide lies not exclusively between Israelis and Palestinians as such. Perhaps the most intransigent divide lies between those who reject efforts to end the conflict and those who continue to doggedly pursue its end. We are each other’s partners, or else we remain each other’s prisoners. Shift the kaleidoscope of our analytical lens, and this different configuration becomes apparent. It also gives us solid common ground to keep building upon. The MEPPA funding will boost and scale-up these efforts for wider impact.

Of course, both Israelis and Palestinians can point to valid examples when their own good faith efforts were rebuffed or denied. But presupposing that continuous efforts to build cooperation are neither worthwhile nor effective ensures that this will be so. Worse, we see that Israelis and Palestinians who engage in cooperative and peacebuilding efforts increasingly risk delegitimization, penalty and attack within their own societies, thus dramatically raising the costs of trying. When we stop trying to work together in constructive ways, we essentially deliver our collective future into the hands of extremists and ultra-nationalists who are cultivating an abundance of determination, resources and power to fulfill a divisive agenda.

MEPPA confronts this trend, empowering those who live at the very heart of this conflict and persevere in its resolution as the right, necessary and feasible thing to do.

Overcoming apathy and reinstating agency

Perhaps most importantly, the MEPPA funds help loosen the hardened grip of apathy. Too many people have given up and given in to despair, cynicism or the blame-game.

It’s deeply understandable. It’s certainly much easier. Believing that there is nothing that we can do, and that everything is their fault and beyond our control, relieves us of responsibility, whether collective or personal. But we always have agency. Always. The work of civil society organizations is just one proof of many. These funds reinforce, invigorate and leverage changemakers’ sense of agency.

Skeptics may question to what extent civil society organizations can really make a difference. But the challenge is not theirs exclusively. It is ours collectively. These funds are a call to action for anyone who cares about the welfare of the people affected by this conflict, whether Israeli or Palestinian. This conflict is rooted in our collective narratives and built continually on the interactions — for both good and bad — between our communities. Redirecting the trajectory of conflict requires our collective efforts. How do we ultimately want this story to unfold? Where do we eventually want to end up? Do we truly want to fight on, endlessly? Is this really the future which we seek to secure for our descendants?

MEPPA puts critical resources into the hands of the determined individuals on both sides who refuse to be eternal enemies. The question is not can we meet this challenge, but how can we do so?

This is the first in a series of articles examining how we can better meet these challenges.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach has worked on conflict, migration and development issues for thirty years, integrating policy, practice and people-oriented perspectives. For the last ten years she has worked on building Jewish-Arab shared society in Israel, including in a leadership role at Hand in Hand, a network of Jewish-Arab schools, and focuses now on writing and social change. She is a Schusterman Senior Fellow and holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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