Ian Austin

We must continue to push for peace at grassroots level

Trite comparisons between Northern Ireland and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, which ignore the very different actors, histories and complexities of the two situations, are commonplace.

However, there is one lesson from the experience of peace-making in Northern Ireland that is worth considering. While the Good Friday Agreement is rightly seen as a turning point in ending the violence and killing which afflicted Northern Ireland, the seeds for peace were sown long before. The International Fund for Ireland, grounded in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, scattered many of them.

Over the past 30 years, it has invested some £700 million in more than 5,800 coexistence projects which aim to ‘promote economic and social advance and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and unionists throughout Ireland’. This work helped provide the popular support underpinning the agreements politicians hammered out in negotiations.

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, an extensive and growing network of non- governmental organisations has worked in Israel and Palestine at a grassroots level to foster the values of coexistence, peace and reconciliation, which will be required if any future settlement there is to be sustainable.

I have visited several of them, including Middle East Education Through Technology, in Jerusalem, whose work bringing together young Israelis and Palestinians is truly inspiring.

But while the international community has invested vast sums in the peace process, comparatively little has been spent on coexistence work.

Britain’s spending in Israel/Palestine is a case in point. People-to-people projects are funded through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, a joint Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Department for International Development fund. According to our calculations, less than 13 percent of its £1.14m spend in Israel-Palestine supports coexistence work.

Without sufficient funding – either from governments or private philanthropy – coexistence projects can only have a limited impact. Properly funded, they could, however, help to build powerful constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine, forcing leaders in both countries to return to meaningful negotiations.

That is why Labour Friends of Israel is next week launching a campaign entitled ‘For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace’. Its central aim is to persuade the government to back the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. The brainchild of the US-based Alliance for Middle East Peace, it is inspired by the International Fund for Ireland and aims to leverage and increase public and private contributions worldwide, funding joint economic development and civil society projects that promote coexistence, peace and reconciliation. Bills have already been introduced in Congress in support of the fund – which aims to invest $200bn, split roughly equally between the US, Europe, other international partners including the Arab world, and the private sector.

We want our government to show its commitment to the fund by increasing the UK’s investment in coexistence work in Israel-Palestine from a pitiful £150,000 to £1.35m – a rough approximation of Britain’s share of the $50m Europe would be expected to contribute.

The lack of progress in the peace process is dispiriting and dangerous, but it should not be used as an excuse for inaction. We have the chance now to sow the seeds for future success.

About the Author
Ian Austin is a Labour MP, and member of Labour Friends of Israel
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