To make peace in private, build peace in public

For months, Secretary of State John Kerry and his team had to worry about whether there would be an Israeli-Palestinian peace process at all.  To their great credit, they have returned the parties to the negotiating table. Now the question is what kind of peace process we’ll have.

What must we do differently this time to achieve a better outcome?  If we learn only one lesson from twenty years of on-and-off peace talks it should be that direct talks between diplomats are not enough.  Success depends on fostering a public peace process, not just a private one.

In the past, the peace process focused on high-level, top-down negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials. The U.S., E.U., and Quartet encouraged, cajoled, and enticed the parties toward agreement.  The Arab world offered to normalize relations with Israel in a final deal. The international community invested billions of dollars to improve the Palestinian economy, build the institutions of Palestinian statehood, facilitate smoother movement of goods and people, and improve security.

All of these were critical steps, but they were not enough.  Negotiations occurred (in fits and starts), economic activity grew, the Palestinians built infrastructure for a future state, and security improved.

But, the politicians felt little pressure or active support from their constituents to pursue a final deal.  Without feeling a solid domestic constituency, no amount of external pressure could convince the Israeli and Palestinian political leaders to cross the finish line.  The missing ingredient in the peace process of the past was the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves.

Politicians do not stray far from where they see votes, donors, and mobilized support.  This basic principle is especially strong where historic national compromises are on the table.  Both sides have deep emotional and historical ties to the land and their own tragic narratives; both have shed too much blood.  To reach peace, each will have to accept less in territory in order to gain far more in long-term security, stability, dignity, and economic opportunity.

What politician would make this sacrifice without feeling the people strongly in support?  When extremists try to derail diplomatic progress through violence, what politician will stand firm for peace without the majority’s vocal backing?

The building blocks to mobilize this critical public support through a public peace process are already in place.  We don’t need to convince Israelis and Palestinians to support a two-state solution because they already do.  For most of the last two decades, large majorities on both sides have consistently supported such a deal.

The obstacle has been that these majorities are silent and entirely disconnected from each other.  Most only know of the other side through conflict-driven stereotypes: they only know of the other as terrorists, settlers, or soldiers.  Most never meet or interact as people.  As a result, even though most people on each side support a two-state solution, equal numbers of people say they doubt that the other side feels the same way and thus doubt that peace is possible.

What both peoples need is tangible ways to engage, build cooperation, and meet their partners on the other side.  Dozens of civil society organizations already make that happen, joining thousands of people together in everyday cooperation through schools, environmental projects, kids’ sports programs, business, medical services, technology, interfaith encounters, and cultural activities.

There are over 80 such people-to-people NGOs working together through the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).  Over the years, many of these initiatives have scaled up and expanded to reach and serve new communities.  Many have waiting lists of people eager to get involved as soon as resources make that possible.  The NGOs themselves are ready to do much more.

This cannot be just an afterthought; it is integral to the success of the entire peacemaking enterprise.  In support of the tough choices diplomats will have to make behind closed doors, world leaders at the highest levels should be highlighting and reaching out to those Israelis and Palestinians who are building cooperation on the ground.  The diplomatic talks should explicitly address how to foster peace between peoples over the long term.

Most importantly, the international community should learn from a successful approach in Northern Ireland by establishing the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.  With $200 million a year in public-private support from around the world, that fund would focus day-in and day-out on building the attitudes and atmosphere that peace requires.  It will bring expertise, long-term strategic vision, and major resources to scale up the public peace process and engage a true critical mass of people in the region.

In every past attempt at peace, we got so wrapped up in the diplomacy that we neglected to engage the very grassroots support the diplomacy needed to succeed.  We pretended as if a dozen people in a private negotiation could change this conflict all alone.

With a latent desire for peace and the infrastructure needed to activate it, there is a way.  But, is there a will from top-down diplomats to partner with bottom-up civil society?  Will the organizers of these latest private negotiations set this public peace process in motion now, in time to help a peace deal arrive and survive?

There is reason for hope that this time, the approach will be different.  President Obama’s remarks in Jerusalem show that he and his team understand the danger of another top-down-only peace process and the power of a parallel public peace process.

The President recognized that peace begins “not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land.”  He understood that “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.”

As the new peace talks get underway in earnest, now is the time to engage the people to make that push.

About the Author
Avi Meyerstein is the founder of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 85 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. He is also a Washington, D.C. lawyer and partner at law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. The views expressed are his own.
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